How old are you? An activity for the first and last day of class

When I teach cultural anthropology, the goal is nothing less than a total epistemological shift. I want them to see themselves, and the world around them, in context. I want them to end the class knowing how to go about answering questions they couldn’t have even imagined the first day.

First and last days of class are special in course design, because they frame the course. You are supposed to start as you mean to go on, and finish strong. Better yet if you can tie them both together in one big bow. This semester, I let my icebreaker do a lot of that work for me.

On the first day of class – which happened to be on “Aging and Culture” – I asked students to introduce themselves by answering the question “how old are you?” without using a number. On the first day of class, we followed that activity up with an analysis. How were they defining age? Were we talking about kinship? Institutional identities? Experiences of our own bodies? How were those things shaped by particular circumstances? What did they think might be universal? It set the tone for the questions we would ask throughout the course.

On the last day of class, after students finished their presentations and a Gallery Walk, and after I did my best to articulate where I hoped they would go next with what they had learned, we did the icebreaker again. I changed it a little. This time, since we had talked about chronology and how it was related to sociocultural infrastructures from disciplinary time to (post)colonial inheritance law, they could also use numbers. But, I added, the context of the age identity they shared should be meaningful to them.

Just like the first day, I took a turn first to confirm my expectations with a clear example. But what followed was a totally different experience. Everyone knew how to answer and so they could turn their attention to appreciating their peers’ reflections instead of worrying if they got it right. It brought home how much more thoroughly they could appreciate the context of their own answers. Even though the theory and methods they learned were necessarily incomplete – don’t we deepen our analytical skills with every project we undertake? – the icebreaker offered an ending to our semester long journey. A signpost where we could stop, and rest, and look around together at the horizon we had made together.

It was a good icebreaker. Good enough that I might use it in a cultural class that has little to do with aging and the life course. But it was also a special – a truly wonderful – group of students, and I will carry them and this semester with me as a touchstone of how transformative a good class can be for a teacher.

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On Civilization (V) and the Academic Job Search

I have a confession: I love the academic job search. I love it for the same reason I love playing Civilization. I like to play on a higher setting than I can usually win on, and whenever I start a new game I like to spend a few hours researching strategy guides for new techniques. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to prioritize using my limited production to the best long term effect. When I finally start the game I look for the land tiles with the resources my civilization needs most and then adjust my strategies as I get to know the competitive field. Looking for a tenure track job as a sociocultural Wu Zetian, from Civ 5anthropologist focusing on the life course seems to have a lot of overlap.

Although I took anthropology classes as an undergrad, I first really connected to the discipline when I came across the Washington Post’s obituary for Clifford Geertz on November 2, 2006. I was still working as a direct service provider at Identity, Inc, but I was already itching to engage the kinds of big questions that intellectually curious people ask when they regularly encounter systemic social problems. Although I am not the kind of person who clips things out of newspapers, I clipped out Geertz’s obituary and bought the book it mentioned: The Interpretation of Cultures. The second or third time I read it, the margins had started filling with questions, arguments, and emojis. I was already hooked by the time I started reading Abu-Lughod, Capps and Ochs, and Mendoza-Denton.

By the time I finally started graduate school, I knew that the job market was inhospitable but my whole-hearted conversion to anthropology demanded action. I believed in the truth-value of particularity and in the methods for paying attention when a culture “bodies forth and enmeshes you” (Geertz After the Fact 44). I wanted to learn it, but I also knew I wanted to teach it. So, from the beginning, I attended every professionalization workshop and anthropological pedagogy talk I could. I started reading teaching blogs, and following anthropologists on Twitter. For seven years I made preparing for the job search my break-time treat. So now? I am pretty excited.

I am still playing on a higher setting than I can reliably win on; in the current job market, I am a PhD candidate competing against people who have had two or three years to prioritize building their publication records over things like researching and writing a dissertation. But the game has now started, and I am enjoying searching out the few positions best suited for the kind of anthropologist I want to be. I hope, of course, that I will win the game – find the place where I can do the kinds of teaching and research that have motivated my adult life – but in the meantime, I am having a lot of fun just playing.

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).

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.

An Open Letter to a Prospective University of Arizona Anthropology Graduate Student

Sam writes a letter

in which I write a letter to myself

Dear Prospective Student Self From 2008,

I know you have already read everything telling you what a bad idea it is to pursue a doctorate in anthropology, and have decided to go for it anyway. That was a good move, and this is the right place for you. I also know you’re a stressball at the moment, so let me give you some of the specifics about the UA School of Anthro program I know you’re aching for.

What is the grad student culture like? Just as you hoped, it is close and supportive. People are passionate about what they do. Not in the dorkilicious way you experienced in the Oberlin Classics Department, but in the grown-up, professional, “I am trying my best to do what I love for a living now and for the rest of my life” way. In my experience, this does not result in backstabbing or cattiness, as I’ve heard is the experience in some other places. To the contrary, people are gentle with each other, show up to each others’ events, and drink to each others’ success unreservedly. If you care about that (I know you do), and having a strong community is part of what matters to you being successful (it definitely is), this is a good program for you to be part of.

What about the professors? There are a lot of them and they vary in all kinds of ways, so this question is not as easy to answer as the first. It does matter that you share interests with them. However, I find that the some of the professors I am most supported by and committed to working with are not always those who share the most interests on paper. You should probably Continue reading

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.