An approach to integrating anarchist-communist politics into introductory physical geography

by Turiddu Kronstadt

When hired at an entry level university post, whether postgraduate, precarious, or tenure-track, one is often confronted with teaching courses beyond one’s background and/or interests (besides a complete lack of or very limited institutionalised pedagogical experience). That was somewhat the situation for me when I started teaching entire courses by myself under the ever deceptive title of Teaching Assistant. If I wanted a stipend (any stipend, really, at that point) and avoid being encumbered with even more loans than I had already accrued, I had to accept whatever was thrown at me.

It happened to be a lab in introductory physical geography (see syllabus here). I had no college-level teaching experience and had just decided to move away from physical geography after my MSc, so as to concentrate on social theories. The prospect of becoming a dishwasher for tenured faculty unwilling to teach introductory courses was not only irritating (and one must quickly learn to hide such irritation under such relations of power), but overwhelming. It would and did set me back in my studies as a result of having to dedicate many hours to a subject that was to me of little interest at that point. At least I had studied enough physical geography to be competent and to make the (it turns out) typical error of piling readings and gratuitous complexities in the curriculum, all for the sake of completeness and, ultimately, to cover up intense self-doubt or insecurity regarding my competence. Regardless, my involvement in anarchist and other anticapitalist groups (e.g., founding the short-lived Atlantic Anarchist Circle, joining the IWW) could not have been further removed from my institutional education work.

This is where passing around Bob Black’s “The Abolition of Work” came in handy at times (at least for my own sanity), but always doing so anonymously, of course. Institutions like universities are structurally inimical to fundamental questioning, mutual learning, consciousness raising, substantive intellectual engagement, and, ultimately, any sort of egalitarianism (except formally, as liberal democratic practices dictate). Circulating antagonistic works like that of Bob Black can help start conversations useful towards undermining bourgeois ideologies in a university (or it can also bring ridicule, less happily).

Eventually, I had to teach other introductory courses as well – just as loathsome to me (e.g., human geography) –, but introductory physical geography (or similar) ended up becoming a more or less chronic condition for me once hired (tenure-track) at “teaching”-oriented colleges. The sort of institution in which I teach is a four-year college, with few postgraduate programmes (none in geography). It is known for its arts curriculum, not the natural sciences, and so people studying here are not exactly keen on subjects like physical geography, if they have even heard of such an abstruse thing. Students, mostly white women, come from a radius of a couple of hundred kilometres away and some seem to be from much wealthier households than me. The town where the college is located is small, tourist-oriented (with “natural” preserves, hiking areas, and very expensive spas), and surrounded by orchards, stables, woods, and cultivated fields. It is enlivened by much activism, especially environmental, and mainstream politics is heavily influenced by the Green Party in the central zone and dominated by the Democratic Party where it ultimately counts, the Chamber of Commerce and the areas controlling motor vehicle flow, for example. Housing is nearly impossible to afford by most professors, who tend to commute to campus (many rich people have holiday homes in the area, raising land and house prices). There are a lot of small shopkeepers and artists in the area as well, many of them politically involved in anti-war efforts and struggles against hydrofracking, for example. The community is a mixture of largely petit bourgeois and extremely wealthy people, including even some famous actors with their nth holiday home here.

In such highly stratified and commodified situation, probably very common in the US, teaching actually refers to a process of simultaneously appeasing bosses called “administrators” and clients/consumers called “students”. It is, as in any factory or office job, a matter of carefully crafted reciprocal pretence, which appears to become internalised among most, even with tenure. Daring to call it for what it is risks marginalisation (one must show seriousness and dedication on the job!) or possibly sacking. The community surrounding the college may be what is strangely termed “progressive” (progress towards what?), with much interest among a minority of students for activism, but anticapitalism is at most underground among professors and the larger community is hardly endeavouring to topple the system and replace it with something like a commune. There is simply too much real estate investment at stake and too many buying into capitalist ideology of making it on one’s own, private property (state parks are scarce and with entrance fees), individual self-fulfilment, and the like. Nevertheless, there are not a few sympathetic to anticapitalist struggles and receptive to perspectives such as anarchist communist ones.

These and many other aspects have compelled me to find ways of agitating through classroom and academic work generally and of reducing the chasm between my political objectives and my waged employment. This is not too different from the situation faced by anticapitalists in any other job situation, but the contrivance of the dichotomous instructor-student relationships, among other things, presents peculiar challenges to an education worker, such as highly uneven power relations and a tendency for an adversarial context because of contentious issues like final marks and GPAs or the possibility of being reported to a Dean. There is, therefore, a lot of constraint on what can be politically achieved in such circumstances. It helps little that the process of learning a subject is compressed into 15 weeks, that the course attracts largely people seeking to fulfil a natural science graduation requirement, that the class meets twice a week for an hour and a 15 minutes, that there are no labs available for physical geography, that there is hardly any infrastructure to bring students outdoors (field trips are impossible due to class time constraints and no viable transportation), that many students are overwhelmed with integrating paid employment with coursework, that almost invariably a third or more of people taking my course have been deskilled in basic arithmetic (e.g., they often have trouble even using percentages), logic/text analysis (e.g., inability to detect circular reasoning, affirmation of the consequent), and reading comprehension (e.g., getting lost if a question requires getting information from several pages in a reading), etc.

As a result of so many issues to face, I have resolved to take a conventional approach to teaching, mirroring the stiff institution of which I am part. But I do so consciously and, in class, self-derisively. I have tried other ways of doing things, but have failed or have found that the effort was too enervating to enable me to achieve other things, like covering the subject adequately or helping people gain confidence in their maths abilities (this is a recurring issue among women students especially). For instance, to invite students to shape the curriculum has been to court disaster, largely because almost everyone taking the course has no clue what physical geography is about and even more importantly because of disinterest. This is a required class for most and so it is treated as such, as a nuisance. To ask them to be engaged in shaping the curriculum or to do anything beyond what is conventionally demanded invites a lot of irritation and defeats the purpose. It also prevents me to reach anyone in class politically.

With such fundamental problems in mind, I began practising and thinking of ways of reconciling my salaried work with my unpaid political work. This is already quite difficult in general, but when assigned a physical geography course, there are additional obstacles. Prior to discussing the obstacles, I must admit that one advantage of teaching a course in the physical or natural sciences is that they are viewed still in the mainstream as objective, neutral, detached, and other such nonsense. There is, in other words, an authoritative aspect associated with such sciences that makes it ironically easier to slip anticapitalist ideas into pedagogical work. For those sceptical about science understood as “Western” reductionist science, let me assure you that I find such reproduction of scientism highly offensive. Just to be clear, being an authority in something should not be conflated with the practice of being authoritarian. Positing Eurocentric masculinist science as the pinnacle of knowledge or even having any notion of superior absolute knowledge is preposterous; it is scientism. But treating science as uniform or as if it were all reductionistic Western science would also be to erase its Kemitic, South Asian, and Arab roots, among others (which reproduces Eurocentric ideology) and to deny the contributions of many people from different cultures and of diverse social status prior to and during its development, as well as today (there would have been no Bacon without Arab mathematicians and women “naturalists”). So, whenever possible or when the occasion arises in the classroom, I point out ideological aspects of mainstream science that are related to capitalism and settler colonialism (for example, that latitude and longitude systems are partly the product of British imperialism and that other, relative coordinate systems are just as legitimate), the fact that scientists can be affected by prevailing ideologies just as anyone else (they come out of a society just like you and me!), and that objectivity and neutrality are dangerous figments. For the last aspect, I like to point out something hopefully obvious when stated, like how scientists seem very objective until their research funding is cut and then suddenly they are part of society again, and may even get emotional, or that a scientist would have to pretend not to be human when studying anything so as to be unbiased in the conventional sense. To play on the authoritative trappings of science, I add that Heisenberg already pointed out long ago in physics that detachment from an object of study is actually impossible (atomic and subatomic particles are physically affected while being studied by the scientist pretending to be a detached observer).

This way, I try as best I can to demonstrate that science is not monolithic, it is not just whatever upper class hetero-white male folks made up, and it is not free of bias. It is one type of knowledge and understanding of the world among many. I also go further than this and tell my students that whenever anyone studies systematically how or why physical processes happen where they do on the Earth’s surface, s/he is a physical geographer, regardless of whether some institution recognises that or not. This is to open up the possibility of envisioning knowledge, authority in some subject (understood as competence), or science itself beyond capitalist institutions like the university and of imagining education as an intellectual process aimed at maximising the potential for everyone’s self-determination. In an institution like the university, however, it is not really possible to put such visions into practice without dismantling the institution itself and the system that generates it. Critiquing conventional notions of science can at least help undermine ideologies about knowledge and its production, the role of universities, the nature of teaching, etc.

Returning to the major disadvantages of teaching an introductory physical geography course, a major one is becoming fully competent in the diversity of fields of knowledge that physical geography represents (from applying basic thermodynamics and statistics to understanding ecosystems and landform development), learning the material well enough to convey information properly and effectively. My main weakness was basic meteorology (it still is) and it took a few years of studying to gain sufficient understanding (this is another of the many long hours of unpaid activity that is mostly unacknowledged and hardly ever mentioned to postgraduates, prior to entering university institutions). It was well worth it, in hindsight because I can now speak on and read about the matter of extreme weather, for example, much more effectively and draw the matter to anticapitalist struggles much more easily, bringing in radical work from hazards researchers (see, among others, who have been showing the linkages between capitalism and the making of cataclysms and meting out of disasters on the poor.

Another no less major problem is avoiding a sense of artificiality in connecting anticapitalist politics to physical geography topics. People can and have been put off in my classrooms when issues I raise do not appear to be relevant to the curriculum. So, I have eventually come up with ways of interweaving anticapitalist messages with the topics covered. It has taken me several years of teaching the same or similar courses in physical geography to be able to achieve this and I have faltered many times along the way. There is anyway a limit to such attempts at subtlety when an issue is subjected to polarisation in the mainstream, such as global warming. I have been accused of anti-Americanism in student evaluations simply by showing CO2 emissions by country, which makes it obvious that the US is the biggest polluting country per capita. Such can be the risks of an introductory physical geography course in the US.

Let me illustrate, using the topic of global warming, how I have learned to deal with institutional constraints, wider political context, and other above-described problems. As you may be aware, it is a very contentious topic, filled with disinformation campaigns in the US. I therefore have to approach the topic very gingerly. I start from the beginning of the term, talking about Earth’s history and the gradual changes in the composition of the atmosphere over millions of years, and then build on this all the way to the full-blown topic when covering climate and climate change. By the time global warming is discussed, there is usually an awareness that climate change happens all the time with and without people doing anything or even existing. There may still be confusion about ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect, but not about the role of human impact. With the variety of information presented and the fact that around here global warming tends not to be denied among most people, it is usually easy to arrive at understanding how recent global atmospheric changes have come about. I show them figures (a map, even) of where the most greenhouse gas emissions per capita are (I often have to explain why doing the figures per capita is important) and compare those figures with a map of where most deaths due to global warming trends are occurring. I always make sure to highlight how the European Union is among the biggest culprits of high greenhouse gas emissions, in spite of its environmentalist rhetoric, and that China are embarking on a similar path because they are competing in the same capitalist system (this is to avoid the accusation of anti-Americanism). Throughout, I couch the matter in terms of ruling classes (through corporations and governments) making such decisions, creating obstacles to change in energy policies, etc., with examples like the destruction of the US railway system through the collusion of large corporations in the 1950s.

Without me having to utter a word, a student or two will remark that those polluting the least are the most affected and that in countries with the highest pollution rates most people have no say in matters of energy. This is the moment when I start tying the problem of environmental degradation, not just global warming (by that time, all major environmental degradation problems will also have been covered), to the huge gaps in wealth generated in this system known as capitalism or “free market” democracy. I show a documentary on the Huaoraní and Cofan struggles in Ecuador against large oil companies from the US, Canada, Brazil, Italy, and other imperialist countries. This makes it clear that capitalism is based on settler colonialism and other forms of violence, crucially through the national state, including the Ecuadorian one. The task then becomes showing how the timing of the trend is deeply connected to the development of capitalism (and the national state as its main political form), which is what I cover towards the end of the course, when focusing on human impact. Part of the task is to demonstrate how fossil fuel use is not inevitable in capitalism but it was necessary historically. The matter is presented as plainly and as jargon-free as I can, with as many figures and pictures as possible. It starts with the voracious use of energy resulting from industrialisation, which is another way of saying that a profit-motive system came about that requires things to be produced in massive quantities, which demands a constant expansion of energy use. Fossil fuels met the bill because of ease of transport and of having the largest amount of energy per unit volume, and so now we are stuck. To get unstuck (to pre-empt some useless diversions, I discuss the insanity of nuclear energy and geoengineering alternatives), energy corporations will have to be reigned in or nationalised (the reformist route) or capitalism has to be replaced with something else. The latter seems the most effective option because time and again we have witnessed how reformism has brought only worse and more environmental degradation.

I typically leave things with the question of what could be done and what kind of struggles might be more appropriate where and when. People who are interested in doing something will ask me what can be done, which is what often gets asked about such overwhelming global problems. This usually generates a discussion about the limits of individual action and the crucial importance of organising collectively. This already achieves quite a bit in terms of counteracting predominant individualistic responses, often seen among US environmentalists. Finally, and this is very rare, some in the class ask about organisations to join and then I point them to several anticapitalist ones, which may not look environmental, but actually are in terms of fighting to bring about an egalitarian system (part of my discussion on capitalism is also that it is ultimately based on violent patriarchal and racist practices, enabling profitability in the first place). In this manner, I can include the IWW, Global Women’s Strike, and many more, without too much effort in showing the connections and, importantly, without anyone in the class deeming the discussion as off topic.

Click here to read the SYLLABUS for the course discussed above (Introduction to Physical Geography)