Teaching the Intersection Between Classics, Anthropology, and Colonialism in 2020

Teaching the Intersection Between Classics, Anthropology, and Colonialism in 2020

cover painting: “The Orient Looks Back at You” by @iamcassandrahawkins

text by Katherine Blouin and Girish Daswani

Exactly 2 years ago, we published a post in this blog entitled “Teaching the Intersection Between Classics, Anthropology, and Colonialism“. The post, in which we shared our syllabus and further reading suggestions, started with this reflection on the genesis of the triple-numbered (Anthropology, History and Classics), 3rd year undergraduate course “Constructing the Other: Orientalism through Time and Space”, which we offered that winter at the University of Toronto, Scarborough campus:

It is no scoop for anyone that many academic disciplines were born in Europe during the Age of Empires. It is certainly the case of Classics and other Antiquity-related specialities. It is, also, the case of Anthropology. While the degree to which these disciplines have decolonized themselves varies greatly, they sometimes do so in relative isolation from each other, and the critical examination of the colonial baggage they carry – a reality which has deep implications in the ways knowledge is constructed and academia (re)produces itself – is still very unevenly integrated within undergraduate and graduate curricula. How can we further such conversations better in the classroom? And how can we do so in a way that fosters a constructive degree of transdisciplinary learning and reflection?

To this day, this post remains one of Everyday Orientalism‘s most popular publications. While co-teaching Orientalism in a truly multidisciplinary fashion has been for us a dream come true type of pedagogical experience, we hadn’t anticipated how so many of our peers and students would be interested by our take on this topic. It was, truly, a cherry on the cake, and we are grateful for everyone who’s engaged with our material and shared feedbacks ever since.

This winter, we did it all over again. Before, and during the pandemic. We were blessed with an amazing, inspiring, engaged and generous group of about thirty students students, whose final projects moved, and provoked, us beyond words. We are so grateful for their energy, trust, and curiosity.

In the spirit of community that animates our pedagogical and scholarly practice, and as a way to foster further conversations and actions pertaining to the crucial need our disciplines still find themselves in when it comes to meaningfully and creatively facing their own colonial entanglements, we are sharing here some retrospective thoughts on this year’s version of the course, and how it both built and differed from the 2018 version. These are followed by this year’s version of the syllabus.


How did this year’s syllabus differ from the 2018 one, and why?

GD: This year, we spent more time on in-class discussions through exploring primary evidence and historical and cultural artefacts. For example, we shared archival material, colonial documents, documentaries, as well as contemporary popular culture media (music videos, clips from movies, ads) with our students in every class. By allowing them to discuss these historical-cultural media in small groups, we were able to facilitate conversations around the continuing presence of Orientalist tropes in our lives and the various connections between colonial archives and contemporary politics (see some of our blackboard thought-maps below).

KB: I agree. I enjoyed preparing and teaching our in-class “case studies” so much! In 2018, we assigned team presentations at the start of each class, but these ended up taking too much time and the majority of them didn’t really allow the group to move beyond the readings. So we were left with less than an hour and a half to properly teach and lead case study-based activities. Students also expressed some frustration with this lack of time in their feedback, which we took due note of. As it turns out, letting go of these presentations was a game changer.

GD: The other major additions were the short biweekly assignments that required students to post Orientalist tropes (with a short commentary) from social media.

KB: These assignments were fun to grade, and they also allowed students – and ourselves – to tie the material to current news and pop culture. Sadly, we can always count on the news to fuel us with Orientalist, othering tropes. From the way Iran was portrayed by Trump and on social media, to sinophobic responses to COVID-19 when it started in January, to how some tourist ads resort to self-Orientalizing tropes, our students spotted gems right from the start of term.

GD: I also really liked final project, which we called “Othered”. Rather than a final essay, we asked students to come up with an art project that aimed at creatively representing and exploring the nuances of Orientalism that came up in class and in their everyday lives.

KB: I would like you to talk more about this assignment, and the virtual art exhibition that it led to, because this stems out of your own pedagogical practice.

GD: Sure! The art exhibition is a pedagogical tool I’ve used in previous anthropology seminars on transnationalism. I’ve used it to explore the concept of Home through creative expressions of concepts like colonialism, racism, multiculturalism and (trans-) nationalism. In this class, it’s been very successful as a way for students to explore Orientalism through its continuing presence in our everyday lives and the role that it plays in generating personal contradictions and conflicting emotions in ways that social theory cannot completely capture. Visual art, poetry, and creative prose are ways to draw from the personal in order to locate the political and not the other way round. It’s a very personally moving experience listening to and viewing the products of our students work and the online aspect of this exhibition has allowed us to share this with more people.

KB: 2 years ago, we had assigned a term essay, that is a more standard, European-style academic assignment. While some students did a great job, we were overall somewhat underwhelmed by the result. “Othered” just brought students’ engagement with the material to a whole new level. To me, the success of this particular assignment and of others of this type (see for instance Tracy Spurrier’s creative assignment around Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern myths) shows what students can, and will, do kickass work, provided you bring them into the conversation in an embodied way, and give them the creative space and platform to make sense of the material they’ve been exposed to. It’s also been really touching for me to see the project take a virtual life of its own during the pandemic. I’m thinking not only of the large number of views the virtual exhibition got, but also of how it inspired a group of students in Anthropology of Dance at the University of Roehampton in the UK. Naiara Müssnich Rotta Gomes de Assunção, who is a student from the group, send us this message:

“We just finish an assignment for the course “Performance of Heritage” where we used the map drawn by one of your students for the project “Teaching Orientalism through Art Practice: ‘Othered’, the Virtual Exhibit”, that we found in the website “Everyday Orientalism”. This project is really inspiring and I believe it dialogues a lot with the work we just finished.”

You can find the project’s description here. And the video of their performance is available on Youtube.

GD: I think I can speak for the two of us when I say that we are humbled and thrilled to see that our students’ art projects was inspirational in some way. I am certainly impressed by what Naiara and her classmates have done, and I loved the video of the students’ different dances with the associated captions.

What was your favorite in-class discussion or activity?

KB: I think we share some favorites, so I’ll let you expand on them. One of my all time winner in-class activity is the autopsy of the Description de l’Égypte’s frontispice page. I wrote about it more than once on this blog, so I won’t expand. But I’ll just say that this image explains so much about the relationship of European imperialism, including the colonial entanglements of our fields, that it easily filled up one hour of discussion. Everything is in there! After introducing the wider context of the production of the Description, I asked students to try to make sense of the frontispiece in small teams. Then we had a group discussion, during which each team shared their main observations on what they saw, and what they didn’t see, and why they think that is so. It also allows me to plug in more information. It was so heartwarming to see how their readings, from Said to Stoler, to Mitchell to Vasunia, were sinking in, and how they were able to not only understand, but use concepts like Orientalism, colonial occlusion and aphasia, or enframing. That also showed up big time in their discussion of the ROM exhibits.

Description de l’Égypte‘s frontispice page

GD: I would say my favourite in-class discussions included the times we explored the nuances of certain historical (colonial) documents. One of these included the list of requirements to qualify for the Civil Service Examinations of India (1893). Apart from the stringent language requirements (which included Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Arabic), “horse-back riding” skills and the ability to travel to London for the exam were interesting points of exclusion in what was touted as an exam aimed to include “Indians” (Hindus and Mohamedens) into the British civil service.

It brought us back to important questions about class reproduction and the interconnections of élite education and racism within the British empire. The other document we analyzed was the (Canadian) “Indian Act”. We learnt more about its continuing relevance for the dehumanization and genocide of indigenous lives in Canada and the ongoing dispossession and marginalization of indigenous peoples today. These documents and laws spoke to the “non-performative” (see Sara Ahmed’s work) nature of many contemporary liberal policies such as “multiculturalism” and “diversity”, in that they work not to bring into effect what they claim to be doing. The discussions were very powerful and revealed important insights on our lives in a settler colonial state.

What would you have done differently, and why?

GD: I would not make too many changes to the model we have now. Possibly, make it a 3 hour long seminar instead of 2 hours and include more student participation around primary evidence and socio-cultural tropes that directly address Orientalism?

KB: It’s true that this would allow for more student participation. I would also like to introduce an outdoor component to the course. Maybe that this will become a trend following the pandemic, but beyond the social distancing benefits, I think it would allow students to process more efficiently the relationship between power, knowledge production, and the land. And we are blessed to teach on a campus that’s right next to a beautiful ravine and creek, with geese and deers roaming around.

What was your highlight of the course?

GD: For me it was the workshop Solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en teach-in we co-organized with Karina Vernon, and the virtual art exhibition. The teach-in came at an important moment when students and faculty were trying to understand the legal and colonial nuances of the pipeline that was scheduled to be built through Wet’suwet’en territories (see here for more information). In class, we had spoken about anti-colonial resistance (with the help of Priyamvada Gopal’s latest work), the use of law to keep people tied to colonial systems of slavery and capitalist dependence, as well as the international solidarity movements that encompassed both colonizers and colonized peoples. We learnt so much from our indigenous colleagues and experts about how legal documents around ownership of land had been conjured and used against indigenous peoples, how court battles had been fought and won, and the ongoing resistance and solidarity that is necessary in making sure that Canadians do not forget their own checkered history of colonialism that still allows for corporate acts of theft.

KB: Agreed! I’m so grateful we were able to team up with Karina. She was teaching her course “Diasporic-Indigenous Relations on Turtle Island” at the same time as ours, so we decided to merge our classrooms for that week and to make the teaching open to all of UTSC’s community. To see how many people showed up to watch the documentary, then learn from Kelly Crawford and Leslie Anne St. Amour, and to witness the impact of the discussion on our students’ understanding of their world, and of why we were teaching them what we were teaching them, was beautiful, powerful, and humbling. For instance, our students made links between the politics of archaeology on Wet’suwet’en land and readings they were assigned for that week on the politics of archaeology in occupied Jerusalem. They received that information at the teach-in, but it also showed up later, in their assignments. The lesson I get from this particular class is that we should be open to adjusting our pedagogical activities when particularly strong events that are tied to the course’s theme are ongoing. Students really benefit from it. And so do we as teachers.


Course objectives

At the end of the semester, each student should be able to:

  1. Define the concept of Orientalism
  2. Critically engage with Edward Said’s monograph Orientalism
  3. Summarize the role played by Orientalism and imperialism in the development of Classical Studies and Anthropology
  4. Identify the different types of historical and ethnographic evidence related to ancient and modern Orientalisms
  5. Explain the potential and limits of these evidence
  6. Understand the issues related to the ethnocentric nature of Orientalist ‘expertise’
  7. Analyze historical documents and contemporary ethnographic evidence in a critical and problem-solving oriented way.
  8. Position oneself in a critical way with regard to Orientalist historiography and ethnography
  9. Demonstrate good writing skills
  10. Demonstrate good oral expression skills

Grading scheme

  • In-class participation 10%
  • Weekly responses 25% (5X5% students could post as many as they wanted and we counted the 5 best scores)
  • Orientalist trope hunt         15% (3X5%)
  • Exhibition critical review   15%
  • Final project: “Othered”       35%

Weekly calendar

Week 1: Course Presentation

Week 2:  Edward Said’s Orientalism 1

  • Readings: Said, E. 1978. Orientalism, ch. 1, pp. 1-110.

Week 3: Edward Said’s Orientalism 2

  • Readings: Said, E. 1978. Orientalism, ch. 3, pp. 201-328.

Week 4: The Age of Empires: Understanding ‘Us’ and the ‘Other’      

  • Readings: Blouin, K. 2018. “Civilization: What’s Up with That?”, Everyday Orientalism,
  • Vasunia, P 2013. The Classics and Colonial India. Oxford, Oxford University Press, ch. 5.
  • Fabian, J. 2014 [1983]. Time and The Other: How Anthropology Makes The Other. NYC, ch. 1, p. 25-35.
  • Gopal, P. 2019. Insurgent Empire. Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. Introduction, p. 16-52.

Week 5: (Post)-Colonial Durabilities

  • Readings: Stoler, A. L. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities In Our Times. Durham, Duke University Press, ch. 1.
  • Daswani, G. 2019. “On the Whiteness of Anthropology”, Everyday Orientalism.
  • Li, Victor. forthcoming.  “Globalorientalization: Globalization Through the Lens of Edward Said’s OrientalismARIEL.

Week 6: The Politics of Heritage I: The Case of Egypt                   

  • Readings: Mitchell, T. 1988. Colonising Egypt, ch.1.
  • Mitchell, T. 2002. Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, ch.6.

Week 7: Reading week – no class

Week 8: Lost in Translation: Tourists, Guides, and the Lands in Between     

  • Readings: Mairs, R. and M. Muratov 2015. Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters. Exploring Egypt and the Near East in the Late 19th-Early 20th Centuries, ch.2 and 4.
  • Paz, A. forthcoming. “Settling History in Silwan: State Emblems and Public Secrets in Occupied East Jerusalem”.
  • Poser, R. 2019. “Common Ground: The Politics of Archaeology in Jerusalem”,  Letter from Silwan.

Week 9: The Politics of Heritage II: Archaeology, the Antiquities Trade and Museums

Week 10: Orientalizing Turtle Islanders                              

Week 11: Environmental Orientalisms

  • Readings: Sawyer, S. and A. Agrawal 2000. “Environmental Orientalisms”, Cultural Critique 45, p. 71-108.
  • Davis, D. K. (2016) The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge, ch.4, p. 81-116.
  • Blouin, K. forthcoming. “Colonial Fantasies and Occluded (Hi)stories: The Case of Early Alexandria”.

Week 12: Nationalism and Internal Orientalisms

  • Readings: Daswani, G. 2018. “I’m From Singapore & I Saw Crazy Rich Asians: What I Saw Was What I Did Not See”, Everyday Orientalism.
  • Alatas, Syed H. 1997 [1977]. The Myth of the Lazy Native: A study of the image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th century and its function in the ideology of colonial capitalism. London, Frank Cass. ch. 10, p. 147-165.
  • Leow, J. forthcoming. “Reading New Asian Tropicalities in Contemporary Singapore.” Positions: Asia Critique.

Week 13: Final presentations


In-class participation      10%

We will conduct the course as a weekly seminar. Everyone’s preparation and participation is expected. All students are required to have closely read the assigned texts before the respective sessions and to be prepared to engage in class discussion. Please remember that effective participation also requires good listening skills.

Reading responses 25 % (5X5%)

Students are required to post 5 short critical reflections on the readings. Each response must be posted on the Discussion Board by the Monday 11:59pm preceding our weekly meeting. Your response may take the form of questions, reflections, or responses to other students’ postings. The postings should be no longer than one page, single-spaced. You are strongly encouraged to read your classmates’ responses before class.

Orientalist trope hunt 15% (3X5%)

During the course of the semester students will be expected to find 3 Orientalist tropes in their immediate environment or online, to make a copy of the image, and to write an accompanying explanation. Keep in mind that an Orientalist image or a text is a collective enterprise and a process made by the author(s), the critic, the reader. It is important to reconnect the image/text to the society, historical agencies or lives from which they derive.

Exhibition critical review 15%

Students shall prepare and submit a critical review of their visit to one of the following exhibitions on display at the ROM:

1. Daphne Cockwell Gallery dedicated to First Peoples art & culture

2. Galleries of Africa: Egypt | Level 3

Students shall write a 5-to-6 page (double spaced, excluding cover page and bibliography) critical review of the exhibition as a whole from the perspective of the courses’ discussions on Orientalism and colonialism. They should also provide a critical analysis of the representations, aims, and limits of such an exhibition, and refer to at least 3 of the class readings. Students are asked to produce an entrance receipt and /or a picture of themselves at the exhibition. Students are encouraged to ask themselves questions such as: What voices are featured in this exhibition? Who are the “experts” quoted or featured? What objects are displayed and themes discussed? What is the overall narrative thread of the exhibition? Are any stereotypes reproduced or challenged? How does the language of the caption participate in the reproduction/challenging of these tropes? What is not discussed? What information is provided about the provenance of the objects on display?

e. Term project: Othered 35%

This assignment has 2 components:

  1. Artwork piece 20%
  2. Interpretive essay (5-6 pages double-spaced, exclusive of cover page and bibliography) 15%

1. Each student shall create a piece of artwork that relates to the theme “Othered”. The piece in question can be of any type (visual art, spoken word, song, music, dance, etc.), as long as its format allows it to be presented or performed to the group on the last day of class. Students are encouraged to seek inspiration in the weekly readings and discussions, as well as in the other assignments for this course. They are also welcome to explore these themes in the light of their own experiences and relationship with the course’s topic.

2. As a complement to the artwork piece, each student is asked to write a 5-6 page interpretive essay (double-spaced, exclusive of cover page and bibliography). The essay must both situate their creation within a broader historical context and articulate how it tackles issues and conversations that pertain to the contemporary relevance of (destabilizing) Orientalist tropes. The bibliography must include at least 10 scholarly titles.

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