Faculty Spotlight: Anita Chari

Don't check your identity at the door in classes taught by this CHC Associate Professor. 

Anita Chari

Position: Associate Professor of Political Science

At UO since: 2011

Song on repeat: “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers

Coffee or tea: Oat milk cappuccino

Guilty pleasure: Ecstatic dance and aperitivo cocktail hour

Favorite concert you’ve ever gone to: Morrissey from the Smiths in London




Anita Chari begins her Music and Politics class with what she calls an “embodiment practice.” She rolls her chair to the front of the room, asks her students to rest their feet on the ground and to feel the sensations within their bodies. She guides them to “listen to yourself as if you were a piece of music.”

Ten minutes later, she pairs the students and instructs them to share a piece of music with their partner. When she asks if anyone doesn’t have headphones, no one raises a hand, which isn’t a shock to Chari. “Listening is something we all know how to do,” she says.

But she wants to push them to try listening in a different way. “It’s about learning how to listen to oneself and one’s own body, to tune into the vibrational level that goes beneath words and the common-sense ways we think about listening,” she says.

Chari is an associate professor of political science at the Honors College, and she’s been teaching at the UO for 11 years. Her focus, she says, is to facilitate embodied learning among her students. That means she wants them to walk in the classroom as people, with bodies, identities and histories, not just as students with brains waiting to be stuffed with information.

She never imagined she would be a teacher when she was younger. She grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, the child of Indian immigrants. As a kid, Chari yearned to be a writer or a singer. As a person of color, she says she didn’t always feel included. “I grew up in an environment where I often felt illegible and excluded because of my cultural and racial background,” she recalls.

At age 7, she started playing cello and sang in several choirs. She says that in singing and music, she found an “unconditional connection” and a sense of belonging. She continued in middle school and high school before attending Georgetown University where she studied philosophy and political science.

While at Georgetown, she worked with a political science professor teaching in a prison education program. At that point, she knew she wanted to be in the classroom because of the connections she could make. “It’s about being able to be in this relationship with others where you transmit, and you give, and you receive,” Chari says.

She also continued with her music before moving on to graduate school at the University of Chicago. While studying critical theory in Frankfurt, Germany, she discovered the field of somatics and the practice of what she calls “embodiment.” Embodiment practices became a way for her to balance the academic intensity she experienced in her studies.

“Academia tends to prioritize the mind over the body,” Chari says, “and this approach really narrows our understanding of what knowledge is. Our bodies are a crucial source for learning to listen and to relate to one another in creative ways.” Instead of constantly splitting the mind and body in her academic work, Chari began to study practices that allowed her to integrate the two in her teaching and research.

Chari defines embodiment as “coming into relationship with sensation in the body,” something she exercises through mindfulness practices, somatic movement, and yoga, practices she’s been bringing to the classroom since her teaching career began.

The practice comes out in her coursework at Clark Honors College where she is a core faculty member. In the Music and Politics class, Chari’s students are learning about the political contexts of various genres of music, including pop, folk, rhythm and blues, and hip hop. They use a critical lens to comment on the work of cultural theorists and consider the ways that musical traditions have changed over time.

In a current exercise, Chari writes two words on the board: “form” and "content.” She talks through the kinds of forms that are notable in music: tempo, rhythm, and melody, for example. She doesn’t want her students to just hear the lyrics and analyze their meaning. She wants them to experience it all – including the buried or inaudible parts of the music. What is the impact and how do they experience the political context of the music as listeners?

“If there’s a part of your identity that’s coming through,” Chari asks the class, “how can you include that in musical analysis?”

One student opens up about listening to music as a person in the LGBTQ+ community, which ignites a conversation about the appropriation of marginalized cultures in modern music.

Chari says some academic institutions tend to neglect the question of identity. “I had the experience myself as a person of color coming into academia and feeling that I had to leave behind so many parts of myself, just to fit in, to be involved, or to be successful,” she says.

Next term, she’s teaching an Honors College class called “Autobiography as Political Agency” with the UO’s Inside-Out Prison Education Program. The class is held inside the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem with a 50/50 split of inmates and UO students participating.

The class will read autobiographies of iconic political activists and discuss the ways that they link their biographies to broader social structures like capitalism, slavery, and colonialism. It’s her favorite class to teach, she says, because it pushes her and her students to work toward creating a space that grapples with tough questions surrounding privilege and identity.

She has witnessed how academia can discount students’ stories and identities by creating environments that are intensely competitive and as a result not engaged in the collective aspects of learning. “As a person of color,” she says, “there's a lot you have to navigate in terms of understanding that the institution, however benevolent, isn't going to be able to include you fully.”

Outside of class, Chari is working on a book about a conceptual artist collective, Claire Fontaine, along with another book about bringing embodied practices into education. She is also penning a book of fictional creative writing.

“I'm very excited about being able to just put my story out there in a bigger way and understand that, actually, my creative work and intellectual work are not at odds with one another,” she says.

—Story by Julia Boboc, Clark Honors College Communications

—Photo by Ilka Sankari, Clark Honors College Communications