My first thought for this month’s article was to consider the role anthropology can play in our new political reality, but, for many, the very newness of this reality is too raw and, like a festering wound, too painful. Since time can be our friend, and since I am in the midst of writing my department’s five-year program review, I decided to spend this month’s article space talking about something less fraught with controversy and that is student learning (and how I can’t help but incorporate comments on today’s political reality into this topic) in an anthropology student’s first two-years of coursework.
At my institution, students are offered courses in cultural anthropology, which satisfies their required general education course for the option. Introduction to Archaeology, Introduction to Physical Anthropology, Introduction to Human Ecology, Cultures of the World, and Fieldwork in Archaeology, all satisfy the 9-10 credits required for career courses. Culture and Personality, along with a special project course, satisfies their 200-level course requirement. In time, I am hoping to add a course in linguistics, but currently we offer survey courses for three of the four subfields, with Cultural Anthropology, a popular general education course for a lot of diverse majors, students to all the subfields. Historically, to provide an in-depth example of practicing/applied anthropology, we offered a field school in archaeology each summer. But, sadly, due to both budget constraints and the retirement of a local state park historian, we currently are not offering that course.
My Culture and Personality course encourages students to face their own biases and learn how, through inquiry supported by evidence, to understand another person’s point of view. We talk about subjectivity and objectivity, ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, and human rights, as well as the role fieldwork can play in making us aware of these themes. Since this semester recently started, I have used the election as a tool to explain what our role as anthropologists can and should be. We began our first class with an open discussion about the election and the choices people made. I asked my students to think about why a person might choose to vote for Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, or one of the other two candidates. We discussed the problem of relying exclusively on media sources that confirm a person’s biases and why seeking out sources on Facebook, the news, or any other social media site that challenges our accepted notions of the world is extremely important. A rancher in the west might have an understanding of public ranchland that an avid environmentalist might not share, but without some knowledge of each other’s point of view, how is it possible to find common ground between two such opposing views of the world? The discussion that emerged was reassuring in that students began to see that although it was easiest to overlook another person’s worldview, that approach can be very unfair. Admittedly, even with this effort at understanding, the class recognized that, though their views might not change, their willingness to at least listen could.
In my honors cultural anthropology course, students read Martha Ward’s Nest in the Wind. As a way to get students to use the ethnographic text as a tool to support both our course content and their own understanding of the material, we look at each chapter for information that clarifies course themes and assignments. Early on in the text, we found evidence to support a lot of the course’s foundational vocabulary and content. One particularly interesting and timely comment Ward made in chapter one was about the assumed “natural” behaviors the visiting psychologist, Floyd, operated within when it came to his understanding of the world. He believed it was “natural” for men to be taken care of by women, and that matrilineal descent was not “natural” because the man was the “dominant sex,” not the woman. This, in a curious way, led us to discuss the “boy talk” or “locker room talk” conversation that became an extremely heated topic in the presidential campaign. I asked my students to consider whether, when women voters said they overlooked Trump’s “locker room talk” because that’s “how men are” were they behaving like Floyd and normalizing behaviors because they perceived them to be “natural.” Both the male and female students in the class were quite bothered by this because they felt the “talk” was not natural and therefore could not so readily be excused. Here again, by understanding why some women might have normalized that episode, we can begin to think about how people make choices and prioritize their values. A woman who said “locker room talk” was typical for men might have assigned that “talk” to be less important in her decision-making than other things Trump offered her or her family, while another woman who was disgusted and offended by that remark might have seen the “talk” as a priority because it reinforced what she saw as other demeaning and disturbing behaviors Trump demonstrated.
The newest course addition to our anthropological pantheon is our Introduction to Human Ecology course. There, students are introduced to and asked to consider a wide range of environmental issues that include how do we encourage human co-existence with wild nature, what are ecosystem services, what is our role in and how do we respond to climate change, and why might eco-terrorism be the result of environmental degradation. Encouraging students to think critically and to apply the tools of anthropology as we work to unravel these issues is particularly important today where the obvious thread that ties both human well-being to intact environments and human actions to climate change are being minimized.
To measure our success at students mastering course content and developing a higher degree of thinking skills, we build specific exam questions to assess student knowledge, we assign career and fieldwork assignments, and we take students on field trips and then require a written analysis of a specific aspect of the experience. We also create experiences that teach students how to be participants, rather than mere tourists who travel through rather than into life. And finally, we expect in our class lectures evidence of a new way of thinking, one that has benefited from seeing life through the critical lens of an anthropologist.
Barbara Jones, PhD is an anthropology professor at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ (the backyard of the Jersey Shore), and contributing editor for the Society for the Anthropology of Community Colleges.