June 12, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 19

current issue
archive / search

    Graduate Teaching Award: Jean Comaroff

    Bernard E. and Ellen C. Sunny Distinguished Service Professor and Chair of Anthropology The end of apartheid in South Africa has been a boon to Jean Comaroff in teaching her students about the nation where she grew up.

    "During the years of apartheid, we couldn't do field work there or have academic exchanges," said Comaroff, the Bernard E. and Ellen C. Sunny Distinguished Service Professor and Chair of Anthropology.

    The country was black-listed by academics and non-academics alike, a situation that changed when Nelson Mandela became president in 1994 and the nation opened up to exchanges.

    As a result of this change, Comaroff and her husband, John Comaroff, the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Anthropology, have been able to find temporary teaching positions for their advanced students at South African universities. The Comaroffs, who have been on the Chicago faculty since 1978, also have taught in South Africa as volunteers during their quarters off from responsibilities at the University.

    Their experiences have deepened their appreciation for the country and the struggle young people there face in getting an education.

    "Our original field work was on the Batswama peoples, and we had an opportunity to teach some of the young generation when we volunteered last summer to teach at Mafikeng-Mmabatho, at the University of the Northwest," Comaroff said.

    "They were so hungry to know more about the history of their people as we would tell it. It was a thrill to share with them what we had learned.

    "We also found out how much these students had missed during their years in apartheid schools. They asked about the Enlightenment -- what it had meant, for instance. We realized that so many things we take for granted in our own educations are not topics they had been exposed to," she said.

    Comaroff has helped develop a cohort of American and African students interested in doing research in South Africa. The students have studied a wide range of issues, from the migration of workers to the symbolic economy of hairstyles. In South Africa, the students have taught primarily at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town -- a historically mixed-race university.

    "The exciting thing about anthropology now in South Africa is how it's viewed as an important way of understanding changes in the political culture," Comaroff said. "Previously it was viewed as being in large part a colonial discipline, but in the post-colonial world it has become very important."

    The rigorous training students receive at Chicago equips them well for their work in the field and in teaching, Comaroff said.

    "What we try to do is to maintain a carefully structured program: graduate core courses and training in the craft and methods of anthropology. We try to prepare them for the kinds of practical and moral challenges they will face in the field," she said.

    "Another part of the program here that is quite effective is the African Studies Workshop that John and I coordinate with Ralph Austen [Professor in History]," Comaroff said. In the workshop, students present proposals and research and discuss them with a group of faculty and students.

    "It's been a wonderful opportunity for students to learn. It's part of an approach to teaching that is very important to me, to encourage the students to collaborate, to learn from one another. I don't want to encourage virtuosity, but collaboration," she said. "Anthropology is a discipline that draws from a wide range of subject areas, and I feel collaboration helps encourage the students to look at topics in different ways. It encourages their creativity."

    Much of Comaroff's own work has benefited from a rich collaboration with her husband. The two are experts on the impact of colonialism on the people of southern Africa and are co-authors of Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa, Vol. 1, which won the Gordon J. Laing Award from the University of Chicago Press in 1993. The second volume in the series will be published by the Press in the fall.

    -- William Harms