Andrew Wortham is a graduate student of Anthropology at Columbia Teachers College, where his work is focused on emerging LGBT communities in China. He has received support from WEAI in various forms since 2016, including Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) awards and Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships, for Chinese language study to support his research on the creation of rural youth culture in a small village in Yunnan, China, where he had previously worked as a teacher.
As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Austin, I did my capstone research project with an anthropology professor studying education in the Indian province of Sikkim. During this field research I became convinced of the value anthropology has in grounding research on education in ethnographic methods. After graduation I joined the organization Teach for China, with the hope of pairing of anthropological understandings with actual teaching practices. From this experience I wanted to continue to develop my research skills and interest in how people from different cultures learn. Teachers College’s Anthropology and Education program is one of the few programs in the world that seeks to fuse the teachings of applied anthropology with the study of learning.
My academic interests center on contemporary China and my current thesis project focuses on ideopolitical education in Chinese universities. Apart from that, the wide variety of courses Columbia offers has enabled me to look at different facets of modern and contemporary China from all kinds of disciplinary perspectives: history, political science, anthropology, cultural studies, and so forth.
One of the most important lessons I have learned from working with my advisor, Professor Herve Varenne, has been to see education and learning as a human activity that happens outside of formal schooling. As I returned to Yunnan (where I lived and worked when I was a Teach for China fellow), I began to look at spaces of learning that were not tied to formal schooling. LGBT discussion groups, held regularly inside tea houses or HIV clinics, were one particularly interesting example. In these spaces, people were posing questions about how to navigate social life and
then exchanging stories and information to try and help each other solve particular problems. My research takes these moments seriously as important sites for studying how an identity is learned, and hopes to contribute both to the literature on gender and sexuality, as well as theories of education and learning.
I first traveled to China in 2008 to visit my brother and his family in Guangzhou. While I was excited by the growth and dynamism of the city, I continued to be interested in studying the countryside. I visited China periodically after that, but moved to Yunnan Province in 2013 and stayed in the rural village of Tengchong until 2015. While most of my effort was directed towards teaching at the time, I couldn’t help but notice that, despite a lack of visibility, there were many “queer” people in the community. They may have been in a traditional heterosexual relationship, but would also have an alternative online presence, very close friends of the same gender, or non-normative gender expressions.
Studying the literature on sexuality in China I found that there is a great emphasis placed on the role of urbanization and transnationalism. When the more rural parts of the country are discussed it normally defaults to deficit language or fails to see the sexuality that exists beyond Western identity categories. The more I go back to China, the more interested I am in learning about the ambiguities that many people live within, and how formal processes of learning seek to produce clarity to these ambiguities.
WEAI has provided me with invaluable resources during my time here at Columbia and it is safe to say that I would not be able to conduct my research this year without the Institute’s
continued generosity. Throughout my studies, I was fortunate enough to receive awards which have provided me with high quality language training both here at Columbia and in Taiwan’s ICLP program. Furthermore, WEAI has provided me with resources to return to China during the summer to conduct pilot research that has helped me to present papers at conferences and further develop my research project. This year WEAI has generously agreed to fund my research in Chengdu and Kunming, which will be the basis for my doctoral dissertation. In addition to providing resources, WEAI has hosted many events with top China scholars that have informed my thinking and research. One that particularly comes to mind is the 2018 lecture “Cultivating a Therapeutic Self in China” from Li Zhang, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California-Davis, about mental health institutions in Kunming. I had been reading Zhang’s work for many years, so I was excited to hear her approach to this new topic, which greatly helped me frame my own questions on how the self becomes formulated in a Chinese context.
I am also grateful to the mentorship and assistance of my advisors Nicholas Bartlett and Myron Cohen. At key moments, people like Professor Cohen have helped me to find the money to study Chinese in Taiwan. During the difficult period of writing my research proposal, Nicholas Bartlett gave me constructive feedback that helped me to better design my project and engage more with the literature. I am incredibly fortunate to have had their guidance during my time here at Columbia.
This article originally appeared in the July issue of the WEAI 70 Years newsletter.