Professor Susan Harding “Rearranges” Her Schedule After 25 Years at UCSC

by Casey Dayan, Class of 2014

(Editor's Note: Professor Susan Harding recently announced her “retirement” effective at the end of the 2013-14 academic year. However, Professor Harding is planning to continue to teach and remain active in the department. Practically speaking, she is actually just rearranging her schedule.)

I TOOK MY FIRST CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY CLASS, with Susan Harding, in the spring of 2012 in the Media Theatre—I remember walking up that windy hill by the art buildings, grumbling to myself about the sheer uselessness of introductory classes, especially considering the terrible cost of tuition, which I didn’t even pay—and after day one, I’d never felt so unimpressed. The class was large—some three-hundred- or-so prospective anthropology majors were sardining into the room, overflowing the seats, barricading the stairs—and I was one of those undergrads who had fallen under the impression that I knew everything about everything, university matters included, and so I sat with the sardines on the stairs by the door, audibly sighing.

I can’t remember the particulars of that first lecture; I only know that there was nothing showy about Susan’s lecturing. She seemed playful and goofy, and lacked the air of authority I’d become accustomed to believing in. I had been infatuated with another professor in another department at the time who I had begun placing in contradistinction to Susan. His lectures were intricate, pieced together with stories from antiquity and strange etymological evolutions; her lectures were quaint. For somebody looking to be awed, Susan did little. She welcomed questions from the classroom, listened, and generally, socratically, responded with more questions: there wasn’t a brick of ivory in the tower, so to speak, and I hadn’t yet drowned in ivory.

Last week, I gave a presentation in one of my classes. Somehow, we were short a computer-projector adapter, so I ran like a crazy person through the social sciences courtyard, up the stairs of Social Sciences I, red and sweating, and into the department office to ask if anybody might have a similar cable. Out of breath, I turned the corner into the office and asked the first person I saw, who I hadn’t noticed was talking to Susan.

“I’m so sorry!” I said, interrupting, “I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Susan didn’t say anything.

Our department manager Fred Deakin checked me out a cable from the adjacent room. On my way out I interrupted Susan’s conversation again (I should probably make note of the fact that I had been a couple days into not sleeping). “I. Just. Wanted. To. Tell. You,” I said gracefully, “thatyouarethereasonIdecidedtostudyanthropology.”

To my surprise, a week or so later, Fred sent me an e-mail asking if I would like to submit a short blurb about how, exactly, Susan’s lectures converted me to the major. One thing led to another, and I offered to write what you’re reading now. When I asked Fred about the tone of the piece, he reminded me that “this department prides itself on its irreverence, but do it in a way that is respectful.” Which is a good metaphor for, I think, why, exactly, Susan’s class made such an impact on me that I felt compelled to interrupt and tell her in that moment.

My whole image of Susan came undone when she had us read an article of hers, “Convicted by the Holy Spirit.” I was surprised—to my own embarrassment—to find that it gave me the chills. I can’t stress enough how much that surprise was born out of my very own, twenty-something-year-old mistake. Craig Schuetze, who studied under Susan, recalls her telling him, just before going into the field, “Your problem is you already know what you think.” It deeply resonated with Craig, and it does with me also, when I think about Susan. She went on to say to him, “You see, in the field, you can’t ever fit your thoughts into pre-fabricated discourses. You can’t jump to conclusions. You can’t really know anything, you have to constantly hallucinate reality. It’s crazy-making, but it’s where I have been living for the last forty years.”

When spring quarter ended, I left happy with the class, but I didn’t have a semblance of what I’d learned. Only in retrospect can I see how significant it was for me, as someone interested in anthropology, sure, but also as a writer, and a musician, and a student, and a twenty-something-year old, and a secular person. It’s difficult to explain why, to anybody who hasn’t taken a class from her or read her work, but Susan’s methodologies with regards to both writing and teaching—as well as the content of what she writes and teaches—have come back like ghosts since taking Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.

Here’s this from my correspondence with Craig, I think it helps explain:

Susan chose a role as casting director rather than acting. Whether discussing God or porn, she was rarely the protagonist in her stories, skillfully stepping out of the limelight to shine it on something bigger and noisier than she could ever be, and yet something no one was talking about. Susan both thinks out and speaks out (loud) but she doesn’t call attention to herself. Rather she plays host to an imminent arrival in the conversation; she opens the door to let the elephant in the room and then yells “charge,” “stampede,” or more often than not, “there’s an elephant in the room. “Perhaps the essence of spectacle,” Susan wrote in “The Born-Again Telescandals,” “is the loss of a unitary authorial point of view, a proliferation of points of view such that stories pile up fantastically, realities clash and mingle indiscriminately, and the total effect of everyone vying for narrative control is an irrepressible sense of events-out-of control, of confusion, disorder, and a constant instability of genres, borders, roles, rules” (1994: 548). These words were my first encounter with Susan, in an undergraduate anthropological theory class in Florida. “You don’t write an essay knowing that it is going to be famous,” she later told me. “If someone had told me that, I would have written something else.”

My whole experience with cultural anthropology—by “experience” I mean my intellectual experience, whatever that means, but I also mean the ways it has impacted me, the ways I’ve incorporated it and believed in it and acted on it—is symbolized by my brief experience with Susan Harding. Like in “Hills Like White Elephants,” or The Old Man and the Sea, what’s happening in Susan’s work is bubbling up from underneath, quietly: too quietly to notice, sometimes, unless you are really paying attention. Only, whereas with Hemingway it’s for drama’s sake, with Susan it’s for her students’ (and readers’) sakes. I won’t speak for anybody, but I imagine Susan, like our department, priding herself on being human, genuine: being irreverent, and cultivating that same attitude in her students (in a respectful way, of course). In her classes, you won’t find a lot of obscure stories from antiquity. Only someone who will make you ask yourself, "Why in the hell do I want to hear obscure stories from antiquity?"