Anthro Brown Bag

News and interesting stuff for Anthros and beyond!

Teaching, Grading, and Banging My Head Against the Wall? March 31, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — MallyMay @ 12:16 AM

Over the past couple week or so, as I’ve attempted to grade 40+ Intro to Cultural Anthropology tests, I’ve been thinking about teaching, grading, and the impact it does (or doesn’t) have on my students.

Whenever we teach, whether we’re grad students teaching a real class for the first time or seasoned veterans with tenure, it seems we always manage to harp on about all the terrible questions we get during class or answers we see on tests.  My personal favorites from this particular test include: apparently at some point during my lectures a student learned that incest is considered appropriate in Hawaiian culture (?!?, wtf, I KNOW I never said that!), and the answer “monogamy is still common because it is the formal way of marriage and living since the beginning of time” (*facepalm*…).


But I’ve also learned to look for the subtle clues that the student really IS learning SOMETHING.  It’s in the mostly wrong answer that is leaning toward the right attitude while using the wrong terms: “The Australians were ethnocentric because they thought they could take all the natives’ stuff because they were barbarians and didn’t know how to use good technology”.  Or it’s in the student who comes up to you after class: “I didn’t realize polygamy was so common around the world!  It still seems really weird to me, and I don’t know why any woman would be ok with it, but I really thought it was just a Mormon thing!”  To our anthro ears enculturated with cultural relativism, statements like these make us cringe.  And yet, when we compare them to what the student may have thought coming into the class, we might be able to claim a little victory.


A recent post by Matt Thompson on Savage Minds had a great quote that I thought was worth sharing.

“For the majority of them my precious notes were a waste and you know what? That’s fine. They are not going to be anthropologists. In all likelihood they’ll never write another essay outside of college. Instead of teaching them to write like anthropologists I’d rather start them on the journey (and it is an iterative process, for all of us) of trying to think like one.”

Matt was talking about writing assignments, but I haven’t been brave enough to attempt one of those during an intro class yet.  The closest I get is putting short answer questions on the exams.  (And then I had one kid leave all of them blank!  Blank!  I was so tempted to write “Why even take the test?!”)  However, I think his insight here can apply to grading tests as well.


Fortunately, I managed to read Matt’s post BEFORE starting to grade my tests, and I’ve been trying to keep this in mind while I grade.  Instead of looking for the perfect complete answer, I look for some indication that the student has grasped the main point of what I was trying to teach on that issue.  If they mix up polyandry and polygyny, but get the benefits and possible reasons for development correct, I’m going to give them at least half credit.  And if every single person misses a question, perhaps it’s not the students who are at fault?  Did I not cover it well enough?  I have to keep in mind that most of these kids are NOT going to be anthropologists, and this may be the only exposure they ever get to what I consider a critical change in thinking patterns.  Isn’t that what should be most important about these classes?


Also, I should note that I have a standing rule when I grade.  If, after all the tests I’ve graded and all the smart-ass comments I’ve read, the student manages to make me actually Laugh Out Loud…they get at least half credit, whether the answer was at all correct or not.  Gotta have some room for humor in academia!


Seriously, What’s the Point? January 23, 2012

Filed under: Anthropology,Archaeology — MallyMay @ 3:30 AM
Tags: ,

Whenever I tell people I’m studying archaeology, I get one of several responses:

1) “I always wanted to do something like that! I dug up my whole backyard one summer as a kid trying to be Indiana Jones!”

2) “Oh, so you dig up dinosaurs and stuff?!” (Le sigh…)

3) “Archaeology…so, what exactly do you plan to do with that?”

The last is a fair question with several potential answers. And it goes beyond simply asking how I plan to support myself in years to come. People want to know why I would choose archaeology. What good does it do? How do I justify spending my time and education money on archaeology rather than something obviously beneficial like engineering or medicine?

I won’t lie…I’ve asked myself that question, too. It always comes to the forefront when I talk about the usefulness of Anthropology as a field. I find myself using examples of my peers in cultural, medical, or biological anthropology as performing necessary research that will benefit the greater good. But where is the archaeology in all of this? What good are we doing? (More to the immediate point for those of us in the field, why should we continue to get funding?!)

It’s a question that I think we as archaeologists should be trying to answer. It’s obvious that people find archaeology fascinating, or there wouldn’t be movies and museum exhibits devoted to it. But I think it’s increasingly important that we devote at least a little bit of our time to explaining just why archaeology is important for everyday people’s lives today. Yes, we think it’s awesome (and deserving of funding), but why should they?

Unfortunately, it’s a big question, and the answer varies depending on the geographic region, culture, and subject being studied. But that’s all the more reason why it should be addressed by each archaeologist.

Personally, I study cooking features and their connection to domestic and ritual life in a remote region of Fiji. Nothing could seem further removed from my home base in Birmingham, Alabama! Yet, I find it has a purpose. People are fascinated by the exotic, and even more so when I can get them to realize that it’s not really as strange as it seems at first glance. Drawing a parallel between gender roles regarding the Fijian earth oven and the American BBQ grill is a great way to get people thinking about things in a slightly different context.

Archaeology can also be a vehicle for sparking discussion about contemporary issues like the environment. From my neck of the research woods, Rapanui (Easter Island) is a fantastic example of over exploitation of environmental resources that had disastrous consequences. Many archaeologists are incorporating outreach programs that emphasize the connection between people and their environments in the past, and the lessons we can learn for today.

With a little creativity, I think any archaeological project can be shown to be beneficial to the general public. And with a focus on STEM research and a general decrease in funding across the board, it has never been more important to show people just how useful we can be!


Tourism – Part 1 September 18, 2011

Filed under: Anthropology — MallyMay @ 12:49 AM
Tags: ,

Photo by tstadler - Flickr

Much as we may hate to admit it, let’s face it: we’ve all been that hated tourist who doesn’t have a clue where they’re going, is way too loud on public transportation, and holds up the line in the coffee shop.  We’ve all been to tourist hot spots, slogged through tourist traps, and had our pictures taken next to monuments and statues and paintings.  As anthropologists, we’ve probably also been those tourists who sneer at our fellow visitors because they clearly haven’t made any effort to learn the language, and definitely didn’t even try to read any serious ethnographies on the culture before they arrived.  Tourism is also a popular subject for anthropologists to study these days, as evidenced by the papers and sessions on the topic at conference meetings like the AAA’s.


I recently read a blog post on Savage Minds by a guy who’s studying the politics of tourism development in Mexico.  He had a lot of interesting things to say, but a few things especially resonated with me.


Ryan looks at who benefits from tourism development, and the consequences of remaking a community to serve the needs of the global market rather than the long-term needs of the community.  So often, we look at international tourism as a bad thing, at development as an imposition of the Western world onto others.  The tourism industry often has a bad reputation for callousness in regards to the environment and local communities.  Of course, not all tourism development is so short-sighted, and some isn’t even imposed by outsiders.


In the course of my fieldwork in Fiji this summer, there was a lot of buzz about plans for tourism development on the rural island where I was staying.  The island has several villages, a grass airstrip which is serviced once a week by a twin-prop plane (depending on weather), and a jetty for receiving large cargo ships. People there were throwing out ideas about building guest housing, clearing hiking trails, and providing activities and amenities that tourists want…all of it brought to the forefront by our archaeological survey that was generating some very interesting sites.  But the mastermind of all this wasn’t some big Australian corporation or global hotel chain.  It was a small group of business-minded men looking to bring jobs and resources to their little island.


And yet, it made me uneasy.  I worried that this lovely island where people still did so many things in more or less traditional ways and where life seemed to move at a slower pace, would turn into a tourist trap.  Into the kind of place with “cultural shows” and “village visits”.  That it would cease to be authentic Fijian.


Then I took a step back.  There are always at least two sides to everything, and ignoring the others in favor of one view will only ever get you into trouble.  In this case, I felt I might be falling into the “noble savage” trap.  Who am I to tell Fijians that they can’t develop tourism on their island because it would make them somehow less Fijian?  This was a vision of a few people who live on the island and are looking for ways to simultaneously share their culture and beauty of natural resources with others while improving their own economic situations. We encourage this kind of thing in small communities in the United States all the time.  And it’s hardly a secret that tourism brings in a TON of money for Fiji.  Who can blame people for wanting a piece of the action?  Pretty much everyone I talked to on the island was optimistic about the idea of bringing tourism there.  And with only a few minutes’ brainstorming, I easily came up with a dozen ways the everyday people of the island could benefit economically.


As Ryan commented in his post, the topic of tourism development is complicated: “It’s not like it’s an easy choice and you can be simply for or against it. There are always drawbacks, but then there are also potential benefits.”  I’m simultaneously fascinated and nervous about how this island’s tourism efforts will unfold.  It may be yet another example of the politics remaking the community into the tourist’s image, or it may end up being a shining example of a community sharing its own perception of what it means to be Fijian with visiting tourists.


Either way, it would probably make a fascinating anthropological study!


Notes from the South March 25, 2011

This post comes to you from the lovely city of Richmond, Virginia, at the annual meeting of the Southern Anthropological Society.  It’s a bit colder here than I’ve been used to the past couple weeks.  It’s supposed to snow here tonight!  Why would I ever leave the warm upper 70’s weather for chilly VA?  Research and networking in new places, of course!


Regrettably, I’m only able to be here for Friday’s presentations, but there have been some interesting ones so far.  I’ll hit the highlights that I found most noteworthy, and pop over to One Thing Campaign’s blog for more SAS notes from Anna as well.


Visual Anthropology

Two interesting presentations here, looking at ethnophotography and ethnofilm.  The first presenter uses photos to show the culture of Cuba, and notes that it can be a strong visual way to help people get past the propaganda and stereotypes associated with Cuba here in the US.  She uses ethnographic photography as a teaching tool: students view the photos, then discuss various topics and concepts related to the images.  This can be an engaging way to challenge students to break down preconceived barriers.  The presenter also uses photography to open up dialogue and bring ethnographic research to a broader audience through community exhibits and events.  She has beautiful photos of an intriguing subject to which more Americans should definitely be exposed.  The only wrinkle I see here is the concept that photo essays can be used by themselves as a method of presenting ethnographic findings.  This is the same hesitation I found myself feeling in an earlier post on Anthro comic books.  Photos are subjective pieces that can mean different things to different people.  Do these photos need some kind of description or direction to help guide the viewer?


The second presentation in this grouping dealt with ethnographic film.  The presenter emphasized the need for interdepartmental and technical collaboration.  She is also using a broad spectrum of media to share her project with diverse audiences – film, website, twitter, university television, etc.  The main issues brought up in relation to this presentation dealt with IRB (Institutional Review Board) problems.  This is the branch of a university’s research arm that makes sure research projects are safe for any human participants (often meaning informed consent forms in the social sciences).  This a big topic with lots of debate, and I’ll make a note to cover this in a later post.


Food and Family


The presentation that has generated the most conversation among the other students attending the meeting with me was the one about early childhood feeding and mothers’ conceptual frameworks in Guatemala.  I found the idea fascinating: the presenter spent 2 months in a rural, predominately Mayan village doing interviews and participant observation.  Basically, she looked at when mothers begin to introduce solid foods to children’s diets, and which foods begin this process.  She stated that mothers choose some foods to give to the child rather than others out of a fear that their feeding decisions will do harm to the child.  Her terminology for this choice gives the two categories of “hard” and “soft” food.  Hard foods are considered dangerous and inappropriate for young children and include beef.  The main thing that stood out to me about this study was its link with malnutrition.  The presenter stated that 60% of children in the area were malnourished, and implied that this notion of “hard = bad” delayed the introduction of crucial protein and nutrients to developing children.  A couple of comments asked why the presenter focused on beef, since many cultures do not give beef to young children, and perhaps the nutrients could come from another place such as leafy greens?  While this would seem to be a very US-based notion of “good” nutrition, I’ll give the presenter the benefit of the doubt.  She stressed that people attempting to help mothers improve the nutritional health of their children should be working within the mothers’ conceptual frameworks to address these issues rather than attempting to change the entire outlook.  Perhaps this means that nutritional aid workers should look at what foods are considered “hard” and bad for infants in this culture, determine what nutrients they’re not receiving from those foods, and try to find “soft” and good alternatives for Guatemalan mothers.  Overall, a very interesting and thought-provoking presentation.


Teaching Anthropological Theory


Sadly, our lunch time ran long and I didn’t get to hear all of the presentations in this category that I had planned to attend.  However, the one presentation I heard intrigued me – one professor was using the TV show LOST to teach anthropological theory to her students!  She had them watch clips and relate anthropology theory readings to the situations in the show.  She would ask questions like: “What would Weber and Durkheim have to say about what’s going here?  How would they interpret the social roles of the characters?”  At the end of the semester, students chose their own clip from a TV show or movie and analyzed it according to the theorist of their choice.  The presenter stated that this gave students a familiar springboard that made theory seem applicable and relevant.  It let them develop a skill set for utilizing theory that they could then apply to more traditional ethnographies.  While I don’t particularly like the show LOST, it sounds like a great way to get students involved and engaged in a theory class – a notoriously difficult subject for undergrad students.


Loving Anthropology March 17, 2011

Filed under: Anthropology — MallyMay @ 12:14 AM

In college, I had a friend whose major was Accounting.  Number crunching, tax preparation, corporate budgeting Accounting.  I didn’t get it.  I mean, I really didn’t get it.  Why on earth would she choose such a mind-numbingly boring major??


So one day I asked her.  What she told me was simple: “I’m good at it.  I can do the work, it doesn’t drive me nuts, and it pays really well.  This way, I have job security and a way to make money to pay for the things I enjoy doing in my free time.”


To be honest, it still didn’t make sense to me.  In the intervening years, I’ve decided that it comes down to a difference in how the two of us looked at the issue of work.  My friend saw her job as a means to afford things she truly enjoyed doing.  I, on the other hand, have always maintained that I have to truly enjoy the work I’m doing.  I need to be passionate about my career field, or it’s really just not worth it for me.


Last month (regrettably just before I started blogging), Rex at Savage Minds asked Anthro bloggers to write a love letter to the discipline in honor of Valentine’s Day.  Several great bloggers answered his call, and Neuroanthropology gathered a bunch of the letters together into one post.  Reading these letters brought back a lot of the reasons why I fell in love with Anthropology in the first place…always a good thing for stressed-out, jaded graduate students to remember from time to time.  Rex’s own letter reverberated with me the most, and inspired me to pull together a few of my own reasons for loving Anthropology.


I was never one of those kids who knows exactly what she wants to be when she grows up.  By middle school, I had recognized a love of world history and mythology.  In early high school, I had my first exposure to people from other countries.  There’s an entry in my 10th grade diary that goes something like this: “I wish there were something I could do that lets me study people from other places all the time.  Is there something like that out there?  Maybe International Relations?”  Enter the undergrad years.  International Relations had too much politics involved for my taste.  I settled for majoring in Spanish and minoring in Psychology, but it wasn’t quite right.  When graduation came, I still had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up.


Finally, after a year of life-changing procrastination from real life in Spain, I got my first taste of Anthropology.  I was hooked after the first Intro class.  At the end of the semester, I declared my intention to go to graduate school, and my mother declared that I had “found my people”.  I laughed, but she was right.


Anthropology takes everything I have ever been interested in studying and brings it together in one legitimate field of study.  It brings together people who, like me, have a diverse range of interests and experiences, and it unites us in a shared passion for studying humanity and all its quirks.  The potentialities for research and collaboration within and beyond anthropology are practically limitless.  Once I found the discipline, I was equal parts dismayed and elated that my biggest problem was now figuring out what exactly I wanted to study within anthropology!


Most people, when I tell them I’m now in graduate school studying Anthropology, give me blank or puzzled looks.  The majority of people don’t even know what Anthropology is.  That would have been me a few years ago.  And while I wouldn’t change the events that have finally gotten me here, part of me does wish it had come a little sooner.  Maybe that’s why I’m so adamant about introducing Anthropology to kids at a younger age.  If I’d known this were an option back in middle school when I first started learning about Greek mythology, Egyptian temples, and Mozambican dances…would things have been a little easier?



Anthro Comics?? March 16, 2011

Filed under: Anthropology — MallyMay @ 12:50 AM
Tags: ,

Doing my first bit of trolling the Anthro blogosphere looking for interesting stuff, I came across a very interesting post on  Apparently, a couple of cultural anthropologists in Norway have taken a rather unorthodox approach to reporting their findings – they’ve written a comic book!


If this sounds crazy to you, you’re probably not alone.  I must admit, my first thought was “ok…that’s…different…”  I was skeptical about whether the authors thought they could accurately present their findings through cartoons.  Anthropologi asked one of the researchers to write a short blog entry about the project, which answered most of my questions.


Turns out, the researchers were very much aware of the potential for disaster in this project, yet they maintain that visual anthropology in its many forms is just as valid an approach as traditional written ethnography.

“While working on this collection, various storylines, narrative arcs, drawings, and so forth, we were faced with a series of esthetic, philosophical, and ethical choices. We not only interpreted our ethnographic findings but also presented our view of the world. In some instances, we used irony and humor to clarify situations. These forms of expression also represent our informants’ subjective experiences. They reflect the tone, emotions, and comments that were expressed by the students and employees during our conversations with them.”


The project was meant to explore the intersect between social/cultural diversity and informational services on a college campus in Oslo, Norway.  The challenge that followed was to present their findings in some way that made it usable to the general public…a challenge all anthros can relate to, I believe.  The resulting comic book can be found online here, along with a more detailed discussion of the project and methods.  Anthropology is a fascinating discipline that studies important and relevant issues, yet we’re often relegated to the background, if we make it into the picture at all.  The authors of this comic book were looking for a way out of the rut of traditional writing, a way to make sure their findings were noticed.

“People tend to better understand the complex issues when they are visible. Literally. Sometimes we need to see ourselves in a mirror to see ourselves at all. These comics were like a mirror that made people reflect upon the social and cultural issues without the distance which written texts often are creating.”

I’m not saying that comic books are the new form of ethnographic writing, nor would they appropriate for every project (incidentally, the comic book authors aren’t saying that either).  However, getting anthropological research to the general public is an issue of real concern, and we definitely shouldn’t turn down an option simply because it’s “just not done”.  There are many different options, and we should be thinking about how to take advantage of those.


As a side note, I still think that longer, technical writing (yes, even with the discipline-specific jargon) is very important.  I don’t think we should be writing ONLY for the public lay person, but ALSO for the public lay person.  Anthropology has a lot to offer!  Blogs, websites, social media, and even comic books can be good ways to spread the word on good, current research that has relevance for the public.


I’ve heard of plans in the making for children’s books, video games, and wiki pages meant to broaden the audience for anthropology.  Any other bright ideas out there for bridging the gap?



And so it begins… March 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — MallyMay @ 12:18 AM

I suppose I should begin by introducing the blog.  This is as much an experiment in social media and information dissemination as anything else.


As a graduate student who has recently begun to delve into anthropology blogs, I suddenly realized just how much information we were missing!  People are reading, writing, and researching a fascinating array of topics in anthropology, most of it never even published.  Several of the blogs out there (Savage Minds and Neuroanthropology being two of my favorites) have done a great job at pulling together information from across the discipline, and it’s often inspiring.


However, I quickly realized that copying and pasting blog links on Facebook and in emails to my friends was going to get old very fast.  (Don’t you just hate it when someone takes over your FB News Feed with a hundred link posts to outside content??)  Inspired as I was by the Anthro blogging community, I decided to try a different tact.


This blog will pull together interesting information from news, current events, scholarly papers, student presentations, current research, other Anthro blogs, and occasionally my own personal observations.  It’s my hope everything collected here will bring new information, insights, and connections to my fellow Anthro students.  And this way, I won’t have to clog up your Facebook feeds!


Since grad students rarely have time to do anything worthwhile for more than 5 minutes at a time, I’ll be enlisting help from my fellow students as well.  If you see an interesting article, read a cool new paper, or just have some thoughts of your own that you’d like to share in a guest post, please let me know about it!  Here’s hoping this humble project can turn into something helpful for all us Anthro kids.