My baby: the Ancient Goddess (or, why to give creative research assignments)

In ninth grade, my English teacher Del Hayes (who would leave the next year to can fish in Alaska) gave my class an open-ended research assignment and I decided to make my first website. It was, more or less, a Wikipedia page on the Byzantine Empress Theodora, although in 1996 there was no other mention of her online (at least according to AltaVista) and Wikipedia was still a twinkle in someone’s eye. But I threw myself into the basics of HTML so that I could choose just the right shade of Hex Value, and I went to the Library of Congress so that I could learn more about Theodora than my school’s Encyclopedias could offer. It was enormously fun.

SalmacisNavez

The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, by Francois Navez (yes, that’s where we got the word from)

Shortly after, I put my feminist interest in Greek myths into code and started work on the opus that would become the website “paleothea.com” (my attempt to translate “ancient goddess” before I knew Greek). For years, it was the first hit on Google if you typed in “Greek Goddess,” and the work that I poured into it led me to major in Ancient Greek Language and Literature at Oberlin College (I had intended a more practical major in psychology). For more than ten years, I stayed up late into the night, posting pre-Raphaelite and WPA-art deco-mural paintings of goddesses that didn’t make the cut to D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths.

Then, as now, my interests were wide-ranging. My fascination with creating a beautiful database of woman-centered Greek myths waned as I became more academically competent in studying them (and I gave away the site), but the research skills I had learned translated easily. The limitations and merits of interpretation were some of the biggest takeaways. The strength of finding my own voice as a researcher was another. I went to work in my own community in the DC area after graduating, and soon the questions I was asking there drove me to graduate school.

Today, I am an anthropologist who does research in Ecuador on how rights and responsibilities change with age, and my love for retelling Hesiod’s myths of gender transformation almost never comes up. But what I know now, that I could not have known then, is that website was as important to my sense of self then as my anthropological work is now. And then as now, it was because of my personal investment and ownership of the work.

cybelemeriaux

Cybele, by Erika Meriaux (seriously, look up the myths about her and Attis, who is lurking in the background)

So now when I teach, I, too, try to include opportunities for my students to come up with their own research projects. I keep adjusting my guidelines because too much latitude is overwhelming for students who are less excited or less confident. Students benefit from having some control over their learning process, but don’t naturally know the critical skills that come with learning how to research. But at the end of the day, my academic journey began the day I came to know myself as a creative contributor of knowledge, and I can think of no greater gift.

tl;dr Inquiry-based learning for the win!

Harry Potter would be Sociocultural

hominum studium est scientia humanitatis

The Four Houses of Anthropology*

Now I know this is going to be a contentious topic, but sometimes a person just has to stand up and decide which branch of anthropology corresponds best to each of the Houses of Hogwarts from Harry Potter.

Gryffindor is the House of Sociocultural Anthropology:
Headed by the professor of Transfiguration (a “theory based subject” says Wikipedia, concerned with the changing properties of people and things), Minerva McGonagall; According to Phineas Nigellus Black, members of other houses sometimes feel that Gryffindors engage in “pointless heroics.” Being daring (to the point of recklessness) seems somehow related to sociocultural fieldwork to me, but I am almost certainly biased. And then, of course, there is the fact that many of the most widely known anthropologists (Mead, Malinowski, etc) were cultural anthropologists, just as many of the most well-known wizards were from Gryffindor …

Hufflepuff is the House of Archaeology:
Where else could the one field of anthropology that really labors belong? They are diggers (like the Hufflepuff’s badger) and if there’s an element associated with archaeology, it is undoubtedly earth (which is, of course, the element of the Hufflepuff House). Despite the obvious symbolic connections between the House and the Subfield, this didn’t feel all the way right because archaeology has so much cachet and Hufflepuff is a more humble House, but the archaeologists I know are good natured enough that I don’t think they’ll mind …

Slytherin is the House of Biological Anthropology:
The “spirit” of the house is all wrong – this is hardly the subfield of anthropology I would consider motivated by Machiavellian ambition. However, the theory of evolution does share with Slytherin a belief in survival of the fittest! Slytherin is headed by the Potions instructor, who shares with Biological Anthropology an interest in the effect of substances on the body. Founder Salazar Slytherin is described as monkey-like, and as we know, primatology is an important part of this subfield. The Bloody Baron was the only ghost to actually kill someone (and biological anthropologists are the only ones in our discipline who we are okay with killing their subjects! Poor rats …).

Ravenclaw is the House of Linguistic Anthropology:
If linguistic anthropologists had an element, they would, like Ravenclaw , be represented by the element of air – how else would speech be possible? Ravenclaws are concerned with erudition, and although many of the linguistic anthropologists I know do very grounded work, the image of the linguist certainly evokes that kind of aura. Finally, Ravenclaw is led by the Charms professor – a subject that is all about incantation which seems like the class of spell a linguistic anthropologist would be most interested in.

—–
*A note on the Four Houses of Anthropology image: That picture is one that I made for a hypothetical t-shirt, but that didn’t pan out. The Latin at the bottom was a collaborative effort with three awesome friends from my days in the Oberlin College Classics Department who have now grown up to be Classics PhDs and profs, and says something like “the study of humans is the science of humanity” (but with a little play on words in studium and is also a reference to the famous Kroeber quotation about anthropology).

The Breast Anthropology Class Ever!*

In honor of Adrienne Pine’s Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet, here is a meme:

Futurama Fry Feminist Anthropology Breastfeeding Meme

I don’t really have my own ideas to add other than generally agreeing with what Pine and others have said already, which is fine because I’m pretty late to the game. But look! Another anthropology relevant meme!


*That was the worst pun in the world. I am so ashamed of myself.

Science fiction and fantasy recommendations for linguistic anthropologists

After my first post on SF/F books and anthropology, I decided I had a lot more to say. Today, I will say it about things I think linguistic anthropologists* (or, you know, anyone who likes thinking about people and language) should read.

Lingua Franca, as I mentioned previously, is by Carole McDonnell in So Long, Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s a short story about people who adapted to life on a loud world by becoming deaf and using sign language but now face the loss of that language and their whole way of life thanks to mouth-speaking traders and a new technology for hearing. This is a story that I would probably have any new linguistic anthropology student read, just so they could start thinking about the same things linguistic anthropologists think about.

Trade Winds by devorah major, also in So Long, Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. Unsurprisingly, about cross-cultural communication. Not as good as “Lingua Franca”, but you just checked out the book anyway, might as well read this one, too.

Embassytown, by China Miéville. Primarily appealing just because it’s so metalinguistic. This central premise of this book is language – or more specifically, extreme differences in language. And yet … Well just check out Jonathan Crowe’s review.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. It’s delicious cyberpunk and a sci-fi classic, but the thought experiment underlying the plot is all about the power of language, though how language is communicated is somewhat different (hint: it’s communicable!).

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Valuable in its exploration of the phenomenology of semiosis. Lol. Jk, I mean it’s cool because she takes the old Tolkien idea of Essentially True Words as having magical power to a whole new level. Is it how language works? No. Does it have something potentially fascinating to say about what language means to humans? I think so …

Leave your own scifi/fantasy recommendations for linguistic anthropologists in the comments!


*Linguistic anthropologists are not like Henry Higgins, whatever BJG‘s parents might think. They are betwixt and between academic disciplines and enjoy everything from weird sounds and gestures to the reasons for saying “y’all” in political speeches.

Anthropology Memes and Methods

Last year around this time Anthropology Major Fox* made it big when it hit Savage Minds. But that’s pretty much our only meme. How can this be? There are hundreds of anthropology bloggers looking for content! Apparently memes just aren’t our thing. It doesn’t seem like it has been the study of much anthropological study either, despite the obvious relevance of the communicative form to the field of linguistic anthropology**.

But when the What People Think I Do meme hit the scene, it seemed like one had arrived we could really get into. Suddenly my Facebook was full of people aligning themselves with Indiana Jones, Bones’ Temperance Brennan, exhausted paper pushers, and 1920s ethnographers. And it struck me that, far more than the random ass Anthropology Major Fox, this was our meme.

“What People Think,” broken down into six panels most relevant to one’s particular cultural milieu, and always including the two parameters: “what people think I do” and “what I really do”. It also commonly includes “what my friends think I do,” “what my mom thinks I do,” “what my boss thinks I do” and “what I think I do”. Seriously? This meme is a basic field method. Maybe you the anthropologist choose the other subjects, maybe you let your informants choose. Maybe you have your informants draw in the boxes with a pen. Maybe you’ve got a computer savvy group who’ll do it online. But how could this not work out and be awesome? (That actually wasn’t rhetorical, because I’m thinking about putting it into my grants and if I’m missing something it would be great to be told that ahead of time …)

And because, you know, how could I write this whole post and not provide an example of what I’m talking about and because this is the internet and I can:

What I Do Meme - Anthro Grad Student


* fuckyeahanthropologymajorfox.tumblr.com seems to have disappeared, but many of the memes live on in places like this.
** though I wish I had a copy of Lisa Newon‘s 2011 AAA poster to share.

Children’s books as ethnographic form

Tsitsanu, by Luciano Ushigua

Tsitsanu, by Luciano Ushigua (a trilingual Sapara book)

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I love children’s books. I love young adult fiction*, I love middle-grade fiction**, but most of all I love picture books. I love them Elizabeth Barrett Browning-style. I love the wide variety of artistic-styles and the short written form (when they have writing at all). Anthropology is not totally out of touch with this, as some have used the creation of children’s books*** as a tool to help communities struggling with language loss and revitalization. But recently I have been thinking that picture books may be even more valuable to anthropology than just the sub-section who work on linguistic and cultural revitalization.

I really really want to engage with a more public form of anthropology, but the opportunities I have seen do not suit me****.  I like blogging, but long experience with online diary-style writing has made me cautious of anything akin to fieldnote blogging. Margaret Mead‘s regular column in Redbook seems beyond both my expertise and my clout. But a picture book is a snapshot of  a time, a place, and a constellation of relationships and social issues, and how great would it be to base it on fieldwork! Illustrations can help provide more depth and breadth, and the book itself can be read at whatever level the reader is ready to engage at. As Madeleine L’Engleonce said, “if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

A Handful of Seeds, by Monica Hughes, illustrated by Luis Garay

A Handful of Seeds, by Monica Hughes, illustrated by Luis Garay

And this would not exactly require the formation of a new genre. Picture books are already suited to this purpose. For instance, Catch That Goat! may be a counting book, but it is also about a Nigerian marketplace. A Handful of Seeds presents a story about capitalism, family, police brutality, urban farming, and homeless children, but it is a book I would pick up for bedtime snuggles any day. The Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story is simply an account of Ramadan as celebrated by a Pakistani American girl – this genre is just begging for anthropologists to get in on it!

Now I just have to think of what to make it about …


* Like Looking for Alaska
** Like Ruby Lu, Star of the Show
*** One that I love is the Kichwa story Kuntur kuyashkamanta, The Condor Who Fell in Love
****I mean, sure I hope my publications will not be hidden behind mammoth paywalls, but making your academic voice available to the public does not make your work really publicly accessible …

A reading break from reading for anthropologists

I love to read, but I only have a limited amount of work reading in me. I don’t, for example, read books on the biological anthropology of aging at breakfast (that’s when I read children’s books – this morning I read Wonderstruck). At the coffeeshop, I like to take an unimportant but difficult book to read a couple of pages of (I’m slowly working my way through Being and Time that way). When I crawl in bed at night, it’s always genre fiction (I just finished Huntress last night). It is only during my “work day” that I read for work. But even then, I sometimes need a break.

Gray Heroes: Elder Tales From Around the WorldAs interested as I am in the gendered paradoxes of Ecuadorian development, if I try to read for more than an hour without stopping, I fail. On the other hand, if I take a break by playing online, it’s really hard to get back to work. So, instead, I take a break by reading something else. Preferably something fun, but relevant; it can’t feel like work, but it can’t be so addictive that I stop working altogether. The solution, I have found, is folktales.

Folktales are good, because they are short, but not as addictive as short form genre fiction. And the best part, if you are an anthropologist, is that they are tangentially (very tangentially unless you actually study folklore) related to your topic. My research reading is about lifespan, age, citizenship, ecuador, sociolinguistics, and modernity, but when I finish a chapter I celebrate by reading one of the folktales from Gray Heroes: Elder Tales From Around the World, edited by Jane Yolen*.

Not everyone likes to read this much. Some people, completely unreasonably, prefer real life. Other people feel like their energy for fun reading is sucked away by their work reading. But if you are like me, and love to read, but sometimes need a break from your work reading, maybe you should think about what kind of folktale collections your library can offer you.


* She is a prolific writer in many genres, but her folktale collections are almost always delightful and accessible. Her website boasts she has been called the Aesop of the twentieth century.