Resisting Business-as-Usual in a Time of Liminality

Shannon Joy Telenko

Last semester, in reflecting on what might bring about more equitable change in education, I was drawn to texts on the related concepts of liminality and communitas. Perhaps this is because my life has been filled with liminality, particularly throughout my involvement with education. At the age of 21, I attended graduate school to study higher education administration and learned I belonged to a special category as a first-generation college student. This helped me to understand what was making me feel disconnected from the experiences of those in my cohort, but it didn’t bring me much peace. Instead, I sensed a psychological and cultural divide between friends and family from my rural Pennsylvania home and my more cosmopolitan friends from school and work. This unsettled feeling of not fully belonging stays with me and is what led me to study anthropology, where I make use of the space between to critically document the behaviors and actions of those doing the messy work of living life. 

In anthropology, we first learn about liminality via Victor Turner as it relates to initiations and rites of passage, but we apply the concepts of liminality to broader areas of life. Edith Turner (2012) highlights communitas – “a gift from liminality” (2012:4) – as “the anthropology of collective joy.” No one should force communitas or create a false communitas, though some have tried. Replace the word “communitas” with “joy” and you’ll not only better understand why manufactured communitas is, as the kids say, “cringey” or “toxic positivity,” but you’ll also easily recall a few failed attempts from your own lived experience. Most, if not all, of us have encountered communitas as it emerges from and then dissipates into everyday life as unexpected and pleasurable togetherness. Some obvious examples include live sporting events and music concerts where fans get swept away in the spirit and sounds, dinner parties erupting into unexpected dance parties, and immediate and collective responses to disasters. Here, in 2020, all of us have found ourselves in a disastrous, global pandemic, something which most of us have never considered as a possibility, much less experienced.

Despite this tragedy, there have been news reports about strangers singing, exercising, and dancing together from across balconies in cities. Pollution levels have decreased as travel has nearly halted. I’ve been receiving text messages, phone calls, and emails from people I hadn’t expected to hear, making sure I’m okay. For me, and I hope for Dr. Turner, these are breathtaking examples of communitas and, sometimes, things we had never realized we might experience or that we sorely needed to experience.

On the other hand, we are also experiencing new forms of distress. Faculty listservs are overflowing with difficult to navigate advice on remote teaching, university leadership teams are telling employees to take care of themselves while asking for continued productivity, and colleagues start Zoom meetings asking how everyone is doing before quickly getting back to business-as-usual. These three examples are not communitas but examples of false communitas as well as attempts at societas, or the reinstituting of order. False communitas and societas can be especially jarring when most everyone is unable to think clearly and therefore unable to create or sustain order. While we are all experiencing liminality and uncertainty and the trauma that can accompany these moments, some members of our higher education and home communities are experiencing greater suffering and had already been suffering. While we might understand this logically, I don’t know that as social scientists we’ve taken time to absorb it emotionally or respond to it in truly helpful and equitable ways.

My outlook coming into my postdoc, one of many liminal states in academia, was that higher education, one microcosm of society, had been responding to crises related to inequity for a long time. The responses have almost always been ones that reinstitute order rooted in traditions created by wealthy, white Americans whose ancestors colonized the United States. Consider changes in higher education after the GI Bill through to the Black Lives Matter movement. Colleges and universities respond with new programs, services, and academic departments. But have we seen widespread transformational change that leads to massive and equitable redistribution and reinvention? Are we using this moment to look for more inclusive ways of doing things that upset the status quo of white supremacy and the systems that have emerged from it and continue to sustain it? 

I suggest that we take time to observe communitas during this shared crisis so that we might better internalize it and embrace something newer and more equitable. Turner (2012) describes communitas as “scenes where light dawns for all kinds of groups, times, and places” (2012:xii) and notes “its untouchability by commercialization or institutionalization” (2012:xii). In that case, I suppose we should let institutions and leadership off the hook, but we might also ask them to get out of the way.

Rubenstein (1992) explains how “communitas is characterized by equality, immediacy, and the lack of social ranks or roles” that “brings about the dissolution of structure, the absence of social distinctions, a homogenization of roles, the disappearance of political allegiance, the breakdown of regular borders and barriers” (1992:251). Through Zoom, we see one another in our homes, which is forcing us to practice vulnerability. At the same time, seeing one another’s homes, whether between students of varying socioeconomic means or between an administrator and a staff assistant, might also make clear the inequities inherent in capitalism and institutional hierarchy. Are we taking time to contemplate these observations so we might finally do something about them?

What are we, as instructors and educators, doing differently in this moment, besides the switch to remote learning? McLaren (1988) describes the ideal teacher as a liminal servant “who can best determine and orchestrate the correct balance between communitas and structure” (1988:177) who, acting in the ritual of education, asks “tough questions…dealing with relations of power and privilege and social class” (1988:177). Not all students have equitable access to technology nor do they trust their instructors will understand why this is. While many institutions are responding to these barriers with temporary, forgiving withdrawal and grading policies, I wonder if we might consider ways in which we might more permanently and systemically relax all of our policies, requirements, and fees in an effort to address inequity not only within our institutions but the inequitable barriers to our institutions.

McKenna (1990) notes the precarity of communitas within the classroom; if it is ever reached “resistance and denial” stand at the ready to “pull it apart” (1990:37). The microlevel of the classroom as a “pedagogical encounter,” (McLaren 1988) within the macrosystem of education “has always been a politicized space because it is there that systems of thought, cultural and political hierarchies are affirmed and denied” (McKenna 1990:36). The classroom is the place in which seeds about how the world works and could work are planted. This is why Mckenna asks, “Do we carry on the traditions of those systems which we learned in the classrooms of our childhoods, colleges, and graduate schools?...we internalize and perpetuate old systems by not asking questions, by accepting a situation as if it were the natural order of things” (1990:36).

Some of us are not allowing this crisis to broadly and sweepingly challenge our old ways of doing things in the classroom and beyond, and our administrations are encouraging this path back to normalcy. In my liminal, postdoctoral position I don’t make these tough decisions. I am not part of any department, center, or team so I don’t have peers or easily identifiable colleagues with whom I might daily share my thoughts and feelings. While sitting in the space between, however, I collect data on how faculty define and practice equity in the classroom. I am noting what the leadership at universities continue to value (poorly defined normalcy) and highlight (hard, underpaid work) during this time of crisis. While we all sit in liminality, I wonder if my fellow applied anthropologists will find the wonder and possibilities of this moment as well as ideas for eliminating racial and additional intersecting disparities within our institutions. How much change will radically transform us and our institutions out of business-as-usual? Can we allow ourselves to get caught up in communitas and then opening ourselves to more equitable practices and ways of being?

Mckenna, Teresa. 1990. “Intersections of Race , Class and Gender: The Feminist Pedagogical Challenge.” Pacific Coast Philology 25 (1): 31–38.

Mclaren, Peter L. 1988. “The Liminal Servant and the Ritual Roots of Critical Pedagogy.” Source: Language Arts 65 (2): 164–80. 

Rubenstein, Jeffrey. 1992. “Purim, Liminality, and Communitas.” AJS Review 17 (2): 247–77.

Turner, Edith. 2012. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. New York: Palgrave MacMillian.

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