What’s your animal?

Some people hate icebreakers – if you’re one of them, maybe pass on this post – but I’ve got one that I learned from my undergrad adviser* that I swear by. The central gist of it is that each student comes up with an animal that starts with the same sound as their name. For example, my name is Sam so I could go with Serpent, Salamander, Snuffleupagus, Socially Awkward Penguin … you get the picture**. Not everyone can think of their own animal, at which point you can invite the rest of the class to make suggestions that the undecided student can choose from.

“Icebreaker” kind of implies “activity designed to make people comfortable,” but without other goals that’s a waste of everyone’s time. In this case, however, the activity serves two more important functions:

  1. It’s a mnemonic device that helps me remember everyone’s name. I often can remember every student’s name after the very first class with this, but if I forget, I just ask them what their animal was and the sound prompt narrows the options enough that I can almost always get it. Since I highly value learning all my students names (and helping them learn each others’ names), this matters to me.
  2. Students can organize themselves into groups based off of similarities between their animals. It’s best if you can tie this to the course material somehow. For example, in the bioanth class I’m TAing, each group had to identify itself based off of a shared “morphological, physiological, or behavioral trait,” which got them using new course terminology. I’m a big believer in small group work, so it takes care of that for me, but for students it gets them actively participating in course content in a low pressure situation and thus doesn’t feel like a waste of their time.

The activity takes about 30 minutes (including group formation) for a class of 25.

* The amazing Kirk Ormand, whose awesomeness cannot be summed up in a footnote.
** Oddly, however, it is not uncommon for at least one student NOT to get it. Halfway through the class, I’ll get someone who announces they are “Doug the Horse.” But it’s pretty easy to redirect this without shaming the student.

Applied Post-Apocalyptic Biological Anthropology

Zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004) I offer to you a lesson plan* I made for a week on natural selection and cultural adaptation in a bioanth class. Use as you like!

GROUP 1: zombie pandemic**
GROUP 2: a chain reaction of global warming put 98% of the earth under water***
GROUP 3: unidentified disease causes human lifespans to drop to 25 years (osteoporosis by 17, mental senility can start by 20)****
GROUP 4: worldwide governments instituted the use of self-maintaining and reproducing humanoid robots who kill people apparently at random to decrease overpopulation*****

It is the year 2030, one year after a massive worldwide apocalypse. You have been observing the changes taking place in the area that we currently call North America. In small groups, discuss what the post-apocalyptic world looks like, make up any details not identified in your group’s listed apocalyptic cause, and answer the questions below. Be prepared to give a five minute explanation of your post-apocalyptic world and your answers to the group and to give feedback to other groups on their worlds.

Begin by separating your section into small groups and assign them their apocalyptic cause. Give them 20 minutes to discuss their post-apocalyptic “natural experiment” in human variation and answer the questions. Then give each group five minutes to present their situation and explain their answers to the rest of the class. Have the rest of the class contribute other possible answers for each section (1 minute per group). (50 minute class)


1. Give a paragraph overview of what the post-apocalyptic world looks like.
2. List two new problems that threaten individual human survival and reproduction in this environment and explain how they might have differed from problems during the EEA.
3. List two existing psychological mechanisms might help face these dilemmas and explain why.
4. List one existing psychological mechanism that might make these dilemmas more difficult to handle and explain why.
5. List two accumulated cultural adaptations that could be useful in this environment and explain why.
6. List two accumulated cultural adaptations that could be maladaptive in this environment and explain why.
7. Imagine a meme that might spread in this new environment. Describe it and why it might be selected for in this environment.

* this is inspired by Chapter 15: Evolution and Human Behavior of Boyd and Silk’s How Humans Evolved
** see Brunch of the Living Dead
*** see Water World, starring Kevin Costner
**** see Orson Scott Card’s short story “Geriatric Ward” in Brave New Worlds
***** feel free to steal this idea for your own story

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).

Squee on Learning New Things, or, Biological Anthropology Is Super Different

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Student T-shirt

a relevant t-shirt that coincidentally happens to be available for sale through my store

I am determined to become more of a curmudgeon. When I came here after working as a case worker for an awesome non-profit, I thought I left my earnest optimism behind. But these moments of squee keep popping up and quashing my cynicism.

One thing I really value about the anthropology graduate program I’m in at the University of Arizona is the four field approach. Nevertheless, I have mostly lived between sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and medical anthropology.* Archaeology and biological anthropology mostly enter my world as “things my friends do”.** But, suddenly, a burgeoning interest in bringing together work on age and life course in biological and sociocultural anthro is pushing me to wade into something unexpected.

I love it. I am SO into thinking through the social implications of different models of getting really old (like, 1) your body just falls apart through a bunch of different processes, which epidemiologists and evolutionary biologists are into, or 2) your body has a clock, and there’s a maximum life span we can achieve if we can take care of the pesky diseases and whatnot, which gerontologists are into). And it had never occurred to me before that humans demonstrate more variation in older ages (though, now that I think about it, it totally makes evolutionary sense and fits with my experiences).*** Sure, I’m into age and all this stuff is at least somewhat relevant to my research, but the real reason I’m so stoked is that it’s TOTALLY NEW to me!

And I think, when I am reminded of the likelihood there will be no good jobs waiting for me after my 8 years of graduate training, that this is a dream worth trying for. The joy of this – of a life of getting to learn TOTALLY NEW STUFF, of building on that stuff with research and of sharing it through teaching – is worth a lot of risk.

Do you have these moments too? What was your last moment of work related squee?

*Unclear about the differences between these and actually want to know more? Check out the American Anthropological Association‘s attempt to answer the question What is Anthropology?
**I may be selling myself a little short here, as I am trying to put together stuff like a course design for a four field anthropology intro classes built around age, but still …
***Both of these things are covered in a chapter I read called “Human Population Biology and the Evolution of Aging” by Wood et al in the edited volume Biological Anthropology and Aging: Perspectives of Human Variation over the Life Span by Crews and Garruto in 1994.

Fantasy recommendations for anthropologists

As has now been established, I am an anthropologist. But I am also a big science fiction and fantasy fan*. Often, I feel like these two things are very closely related to each other. Plenty of science fiction has anthropologists (some even point to a subgenre) and anthropology is a science that is the writing of fictions (Geertz is groaning in his grave at that one). I bet Donna Haraway would agree with me, though, because have you ever seen that crazy (awesome) chart on page 229 of Modest_witness@second_millennium.Femaleman_meets_oncomouse: Feminism and Technoscience? She totally mentions The Left Hand of Darkness, He, She, and It, and the Xenogenesis Trilogy, all three of which I adore and you should certainly read. She’s not the only one who makes SF/F references either, but I have forgotten the others. I am determined that when I am a grown up anthropologist, I will also find ways to include such references in my publications too. But now that I have a blog, why wait?

I keep an evolving list of fantasy-for-anthropologists at Goodreads.com, but you may not yet be interested in following that link. Allow me to convince you.

The Telling, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin, Grand Master of Science Fiction (no really, it’s a thing), is undoubtedly the best starting place. Much of her work has an undeniably ethnographic style, but if you want to read some beautiful short form ethnography to get started, check out The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. The worlds and universes are more exploratory than imaginary, and they are studied by the narrators and clearly beloved of the author. But that is a book of short stories about places, times, and people’s she spent a lifetime writing about and for many a coherent and compelling genre novel (though I’m sure she would not approve of my use of the word) is more appealing. If that is the case for you, you should begin with The Telling. If I were rich and had more time, I would buy a copy for every anthropologist I know. Of course, it is no surprise that her work should be so anthropological, she is the daughter of two anthropologists (her father, Alfred Kroeber, founded the anthropology program at Berkeley) and her brother became an anthropologist, too. But I admit, I have never read her family’s work, whereas hers has shaped my worldview.

LeGuin is undoubtedly the cultural anthropologist’s go-to author, but I can be more specific! If you are a linguistic anthropologist, allow me to recommend the short story “Lingua Franca” by Carole McDonnell in So Long, Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. A medical anthropologist should probably start by watching the movie Gattaca, (about a future in which eugenic genetics are more encompassing) but I’m also a big fan of Cory Doctorow’s dystopian short story “The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” about a bio-surveillance state and Robert Silverberg’s “Caught in the Organ Draft” in the devastating collection Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories (which, incidentally you can check out for yourself thanks to the awesome Baen Free Library).** A physical anthropologist interested in age (like me) may find Orson Scott Card’s “Geriatric Ward” of interest (although that hardly approximates my intensely emotional reaction to the story). Archaeologists actually make me think of mysteries (because of the Amelia Peabody books and Summer of the Dragon by Elizabeth Peters), but I’m sure there’s good stuff out there***.

And look, other people think so too. Like, anthropology professor Charles F. Urbanowicz who said,  “Anthropology and science fiction often present data and ideas so bizarre and unusual that readers, in their first confrontation with both, often fail to appreciate either science fiction or anthropology. Intelligence does not merely consist of fact, but in the integration of ideas — and ideas can come from anywhere, especially good science fiction!” (It’s a blog, I’m totally allowed to cite Wikipedia).

Of course, maybe you already agree with me. Maybe you actually have a book you want to recommend to me! In which case, to the comments!


*I’m also a fan of children’s books, but that’s another post
**I feel like this isn’t my best possible medanth rec – I may have to write about this again another time.)
***I love Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey’s The Ship Who Searched, which begins at an archaeological dig, but I’m not sure if there is really a lesson for archaeologists there the way the other stories are actually useful for anthropologists.