SACC Matters!

The recent AAA Annual Meeting was, as usual, a great opportunity for Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges members to showcase their strengths. The Annual Meeting theme of Anthropology Matters encouraged presenters to move anthropology out of the rather siloed realm of academics into one that highlights the practical and highly relevant attributes of the discipline. Through “I Love It When You…” and “The Five Fields Update: Teaching on Culture and Society in a New Atmosphere” panels, the SACC offered meeting attendees the opportunity to engage with what Evin Rodkey’s “Five Fields Update” panel abstract described as “the importance of effectively intervening as social science practitioners and teachers, making anthropological explanations welcoming and engaging.” The abstract concluded with the words, “Our students contribute to the cultural atmosphere—we can help them more effectively improve on it,” reminding us that anthropology cannot and should not be defined in the rarefied and rather exclusive realm of academia. Instead, through its use on the ground and, for us as instructors of its tenets, the skill set anthropology offers should help our students develop a worldview that doesn’t so readily tolerate today’s cultural “atmosphere of divisiveness.”

One of the papers presented in the “I Love It When You…” panel suggested incorporating teaching strategies that rely on assignment topics students actually value. This speaker chose the language of disasters to get students “involved from day one.” She had students describe in writing a dangerous experience they participated in or observed, whether it was a car accident; a natural disaster like a hurricane, flood, or earthquake; or a frightening event like the Boston Marathon Bombing or a vehicular attack on a city street. From this writing assignment, students described relatable experiences that could forge connections across a diverse classroom. Another speaker talked about the many issues students in the LGBTQIA community face on campus. She had students think about how “safe bathrooms,” the fear of “outing,” or our tendency to rely on traditional gendered pronouns could in each instance become a major issue for LGBTQIA students. She asked us, “What happens in class when a student’s name [on the faculty roster] is Margaret, but the student says my name is Michael?” To this presenter, though, the holistic lens of anthropology can help make sure a student in this situation is “not [made] invisible in class.”  To her, professors who lead by example and are willing to admit they aren’t always as aware as they should be can foster a more “open and comfortably diverse classroom.”

One of the papers presented in the “I Love It When You…” panel suggested incorporating teaching strategies that rely on assignment topics students actually value.
In the “Five Fields Update” panel, the notion that anthropology matters but has a messaging problem was made painfully clear. William Pestle’s talk, “Teaching Anthropology in a Post-Truth World,” offered us the opportunity to hear how the “vilification, or at least the devaluation, of experts, empirically based conclusions, and specialized knowledge” has provided anthropology with a new sense of purpose, one that sees “the teaching of anthropology in the new American atmosphere as a powerful tool for re-establishing notions of truth and fact.” By highlighting the obscure nature of peer-reviewed journal article titles, he reminded each of us that to achieve this goal we must make our language understandable to a larger audience. By relying on the acronym “KISS” (Keep It Simple, Stupid), we can begin to meet our “digital natives” (our students) where they live and to spread our message in a way that “ELI5” (Explains Like I am five years old). The unnecessarily complex language we use within the anthropological canon can make our message seem foreign and irrelevant to those not well-versed in the, at times, pedantic language of the discipline.

Stephen E. Nash from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science continued on this theme in his talk on “Meet Them in the Middle: Archaeology, Society, and Communication in the Twenty-First Century.” He spoke of the importance of communicating science so that people can actually understand and relate to what scientists are saying. This skill is so critical that the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science was designed specifically to teach scientists how to communicate more effectively with a public that may include policymakers, students, funders, and the media. At a recent conference I attended in Grand Teton National Park, a national park ranger explained how, in order to convey complex ideas, scientists need to become better storytellers. People might not hear scientific messages about our role in climate change, but when stories are told about how, for example, the amazingly cute pika that relies on cold temperatures can’t survive because global temperatures are rising too quickly, people are more apt to see climate change and our role in it as real. The relatable nature of the pika story makes it much easier to communicate the science behind climate change. To me, the most powerful message in Nash’s talk demonstrated how, as cultural experts who possess a valuable skill set, we have allowed ourselves to be marginalized. The significance of our failure is made stunningly apparent by a comment Nash made regarding his bestselling book, Stories in Stone: The Enchanted Gem Carvings of Vasily Konovalenko. This book, his personal best in terms of numbers purchased, sold a total of 400 copies. If anthropology truly matters on a planet of seven billion people, that number of copies sold should really bother us all.

Barbara Jones is contributing editor for the Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges.

Cite as: Jones, Barbara. 2018. “SACC Matters!” Anthropology News website, January 22, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.737

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