Susan Seizer’s reflections upon retirement

What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about

the story behind writing it?


Oddly enough the article I am most proud of is the first one I published, while
still a grad student: “Paradoxes of Visibility in the Field: Rites of Queer Passage in
Anthropology” (Public Culture, 1995 N1V6:73-100). Not part of my stated research on
Special Drama but rather fully within a genre of fieldwork reflections then considered
the “soft” rather than the “hard science” side of anthropology, writing this essay as soon
as I had returned to the States let me express so much about how I learned during my
first years of fieldwork in India. I wrote about the welcome, open homosociality among
women in Tamilnadu, and its flipside: how lesbianism wasn’t a recognizable “thing” at
the time. Writing about this let me muse about thinginess itself, about invisibility as a
cloak stitched of non-things that have no name, and the power of naming itself. A key
concept of linguistic anthropology, speech as action is very much in play in the Tamil
world.


In the same essay I wrote about the palpably uncomfortable continuing
existence of White & English-speaking privilege in India, a colonial legacy of 150 years of
the British Raj. This unwelcome inheritance cropped up interpersonally in deferential
treatment tinged with suspicion. I managed to not personally drown in feeling the
weight of all this on my shoulders by peppering my essay with embarrassing quotes
from famous anthropologists (Malinowski, Mayberry-Lewis, Mead) that I used as
epigrammatic subheadings. I took these from their own “softer” and more vulnerable
writings (M’s posthumous Diary, M-L’s The Savage and the Innocent, and Mead’s
Blackberry Winter). Their squeamish company helped me laugh at myself.


An unanticipated pleasure of publishing this essay is that it has turned out to
serve prospective LGBTQ ethnographers as a kind of fieldwork guide. Evidently it was
risky to write and publish such stuff if you wanted to have a career in anthropology.
Carol Breckenridge, the Editor of Public Culture at the time, had offered to publish this
piece without my having submitted it to the journal (I showed it to her to ask her advice,
as I was a student in her grad seminar). Before publishing it however she wanted to
make sure I understood the risks posed by doing so. I assured her that this did not feel
risky to me, that I had been an out lesbian for fifteen years by then and had no plans to
go back in the closet for any job where homophobia reigned. What a different time that
was, when Anthro grad students could be so cavalier about T-T job options…. What
neither Carol nor anyone else in my grad school milieu knew at the time was how
uncomfortable I was grappling with a newly acquired “identity” I had been counseled to
hide. Vision troubles in the final summer of my fieldwork landed me back home a month
early, with a spinal tap and a diagnosis of MS (multiple sclerosis) the next day. Thus
began a tailspin that has lasted now for almost thirty years. In comparison to keeping
this bit of life-changing news quiet, outing myself as a lesbian in print felt easy and
familiar, and writing a refuge. The irony is that I did write this essay in an actual closet. My first Apple computer – Grape! – sat on a desk tucked into a narrow coat closet
underneath a dramatic spiral staircase with a sexy black leather banister. Perfect.

What class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I really enjoyed teaching using film, which I did in pretty much every course I
have taught, to varying degrees. I use films of all types – documentary and fiction, indie
and mainstream, foreign and not – primarily to enlarge the ethnographic picture
students get through readings and lectures. Only one of my courses focused on
filmmakers as well as their films. “India Lost & Found: South Asian diasporic feminist
filmmakers” was exhilarating to teach. It allowed me to introduce Indiana students to a
region and a history about which they generally knew very little. I focused on
filmmakers from the South Asian diaspora in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., recognizing
how diasporic distance allows these filmmakers to escape the rigid censorship of the
region to offer both biting critique and fierce love to the homelands they’d left. We
watched and discussed multiple films in the oeuvres of Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, as
well as films by other important filmmakers including Gurinder Chadha and Hanif
Kureishi. I first developed this course while a faculty member in the department of
Communication & Culture (CMCL), encouraged by my film and media studies colleagues
there.


Apart from this relatively rare pleasure (I taught India Lost & Found only four
times), the course I have enjoyed teaching most was “Stigma: Culture, Identity and the
Abject.” I feel passionate about this course. It is also probably the course for which I will
be most remembered. I taught it annually for over twenty-five years, and students from
three decades continue to contact me upon encountering something that reminds them
of the lens we developed together in this course. I approach the topic of stigma as a
compassionate rubric through which to view the lives of those who are marginalized as
“different” from the norm in some way. I draw on a wide range of material that students
generally do not encounter in other courses, from history of science texts about
conjoined twins to memoirs of carnival life, from discussions of eugenics to the attitude
of wonder fostered by cabinets of curiosity (wunderkammern). To give the best sense of
my approach, here is the course description

Cultural value systems in every society rely on sets of mutually defining terms — for example, normal/abnormal, able-bodied/disabled, free/enslaved, legal/illegal, white/non-white, heterosexual/homosexual — that largely determine local attitudes of acceptance or ostracism regarding particular categories of persons. Focusing on social stigma allows us to understand how specific cultural value systems affect our most intimate senses of self, contribute to our very notions of personhood, and inform the ways in which we communicate and engage with others in the world.

Stigma theory speaks broadly to the nature of the social relationships that create marked categories of persons, regardless of which particular attributes are devalued. In this class we look both at theory and at particular cases of stigmatized persons (individuals & groups), as attention to the particularities of a given stigma keys us in to the cultural values that create and support it. Since stigmas do (eventually!) change over time, identifying strategies that have been effective in creating such change is a primary focus of the course.

The theoretical centerpiece of this course is Erving Goffman’s 1963 study Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. We will read this text closely to appreciate Goffman’s insights, and attempt throughout the semester to update them (and the language he uses to convey his points) by applying his model to more recent historical and ethnographic case studies of stigmatized persons & groups. Our focus will be on the range and efficacy of the various strategies available for countering stigma.

Expressive arts — including written & spoken word, film/video, and performance — will be explored as popular strategies for disarming the stigmatizing gaze. We focus in particular on artists and activists whose work addresses contemporary cases of stigma. Weekly screenings of landmark films in fields including American studies, disability studies, black studies, queer studies, and gender & women’s studies supplement regular class meetings; viewing these films is a critical part of the course.

I am interested in passing the Stigma course on to anyone interested in carrying the torch. I would be happy to share syllabi and course materials I have honed for this course over the years; I changed at least some topics, films, and readings every year. The course has had many iterations: as a grad seminar, as an upper-level undergrad course, as a mixed 400/600 level, and most recently as an introductory GEN Ed course at the 200-level. In short, the rubric is malleable as well as valuable, and I hope the course will continue to be taught. DM me! (or find my syllabi on academia.edu.)

What object in your life do you make into a sentient being?

I call the lift in my bedroom Wall-E. It helps.

What is the worst piece of advice you have ever gotten?

When I was a grad student at the University of Chicago, Prof. John Comaroff was Chair of the Anthropology Department. He inaugurated and taught a Professionalization Seminar in which he advised female students to wear stockings – pantyhose — when going for job talks. I consider this bad advice for at least two reasons: the advice is itself uncomfortably intimate and sexist, and pantyhose are super uncomfortable. Not a good confidence builder for fierce-feminist-yet- nevertheless-vulnerable women entering the academic job market.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace?

I stole my sons’ two downstairs bedrooms to make one generous, accessible downstairs study for myself. The boys were young, 7 and 11, when we moved them upstairs to my old study and small yoga room. Now that they are teens, they like it (maybe even too much). Meanwhile, in my new downstairs study, a big picture window onto our front garden is where I look when I write.

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