Regna Darnell’s reflections upon retirement

Copy of Darnell preferred image

What is your morning routine?

I’m a night owl with frequent insomnia.  On a good morning, the CBC radio alarm plays local and global news from 7:30-8:30.  I frequently wake up when it stops playing and turn it back on to catch the news again at 9 while doing a modest exercise routine supervised by my two manic cats.  I wander downstairs, feed them and make a pot of tea before reading the Toronto Globe and Mail and doing the morning crossword.  Then it’s time to check the e-mail.  With an overview of what has erupted there overnight, I adjourn to the kitchen to scrounge breakfast, usually leftovers.  Back to the e-mail for what can be done fairly easily.  By 11 or 12, I’m ready to face the office or various meetings.  I can manage earlier if I set extra alarms, but then I fade mid-afternoon and ruin my customary evening spurt of productive work.

What is the favorite thing you have written?

I’m a wordsmith.  My favourite writing is usually the last thing I wrote, excluding the jetsam and flotsam of everyday academic practice:  memos, recommendations, evaluation panels, manuscript reviews and so on.  But there is real satisfaction in expressing what I want to say as elegantly and precisely as possible.  At one level I hate writing, but it is a lovely thing to have done — a rare use for the Latin ablative absolute.  I procrastinate for a long time, usually until a deadline looms, then write rapidly in stream of consciousness.  Even the everyday writing often goes through multiple drafts, though I realize few people read carefully in these days of digital skimming.  I used to think I had a short attention span because I have shifted topics and even disciplines every decade or so.  In recent years, I realize I’ve always circled around the same core ideas, coming at them from different angles, addressing different interlocutors, and seeking validating evidence for grand concepts in changing ethnographic sites and political desiderata.  In Isaiah Berlin’s memorable phrase, I am more hedgehog and less fox than I saw myself as a brash young academic.  The continuities, rhizomes, full circles – all emergent alongside colleagues, students, research partners, family, friends (categories that overlap dramatically).  I enjoy co-authorship – more fun, less stressful, not committed to irrevocable form without feedback and sober second thought.  It drives me nuts these days that journal editors want blind reviews that don’t tell you what experience the author has to back up their assertions.  Peer reviewers often insist on a formal rather than a narrative structure, on research results rather than mindful reflection (reflexivity).  I want to write about what we anthropologists are up to and resent being asked for revisions that subvert the narrative structure of emergent meaning.  That is my favourite writing right now.

What is your favorite form of teaching?

I aspire to extract the points I want to make from student discussion.  I refuse to tell them the answers, preferring to focus on honing open-ended questions and encouraging students to test the ideas from their own experience and research.  Some years ago, I was incensed when the university decided to schedule classes randomly by central computer (they backed down at the ensuing uproar).  Anyway, I applied for a fellowship to buy out my teaching for two years and support research and was quite shocked when I got it.  I’m a teacher and teachers teach, so I hired an Indigenous colleague who was ABD to replace me and we team-taught a seminar.  I also invented something I called “the non-class.”  I met regularly with grad students who wanted to talk about their work or what they were reading, with topics negotiated by the participants from one meeting to the next.  More than a decade later, the non-class is still going although it has morphed into having much more of a focus on activism.  The students have come from Women’s Studies, Theory and Criticism, Comparative Literature, English, various language departments and Public Health as well as Anthropology.  More people are doing such things these days (that is, flipped classrooms or case-based teaching), though they don’t call it the pedagogy of the non-class.  Whatever we call it, this is the essence of education.  I trust my students and former students to carry on the ideas we’ve developed together.  They don’t do things the way I would but they do speak to the needs of their generation.  It’s their turn.  I am proud of their initiatives and I am still learning from them.  My job is to facilitate and mentor.  I think I’ve always felt this way but the priority is more pronounced as I enter retirement, nominal as it so far is in practice.

Do you consider yourself a linguistic anthropologist?

Much of my work has been outside the normal practice and network of linguistic anthropology despite my core graduate training, alongside history of anthropology as a lonelier enterprise.  I am not and have never considered myself a linguist in the narrow sense but rather a fascinated student of how cross-cultural systems of meaning work.  I have no particular talent for linguistics in the narrow sense.  But there is a broader sense.  For five decades now, I have tried to get my head around Algonquian structures of making meaning.   What I now call relationality and language revitalization draws on deeply embedded social principles as well as grammatical categories.  It is a humbling and never fully attainable enterprise.  Although I have rapidly declining fluency in a number of languages, both Indigenous and European, I consider myself a monolingual.  I will never attain the richness of synonymy, idiom and expressive capacity of a native speaker and lifelong learner in any other language.  Paradoxically, many socio-cultural colleagues consider me a linguist because my attentiveness to language is alien to them.  I savor the detailed evidence of ethnography grounded in discourse analysis, including small behavior, that is in fundamental contrast to the abstract discourses of globalization, neocapitalism, and so on.  I approach the latter, often critically, through the former.  In recent years, many linguistic anthropology colleagues, of my generation at least, are investigating the philosophical underpinnings of language and meaning, in an exercise that to me is history of anthropology, though I don’t suppose they think of it that way.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I still have a passion for the medieval English literature of my undergrad double major.  At Bryn Mawr, I refused to read secondary sources, reinvented many wheels that it turned out others had thought of first, and unwittingly wrote anthropology papers for my English courses.  I was proud of a recent invitation to examine a dissertation in medieval studies; it was a lot of work but fascinating. The student wanted me because of some fascinating cross-talk in the manuscript.  I would have had a harder time choosing which major to pursue if English had been so open to cultural analysis and to the global context of medieval history and civilization.  I’m more of a reader than movie goer but The Seventh Seal and The Name of the Rose visualize the Middle Ages.  I’ve noticed that many medievalists also teach science fiction and maybe that makes sense.  I’ve been writing about anthropological science fiction recently.  Some favourite books that others seem to find odd:  Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, Oblomov, the poetry of Baudelaire.

Dr. Regna Darnell is the General Editor of the Franz Boas Papers: Documentary Edition, and the Founding Director of First Nations Studies at the University of Western Ontario.


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