Monday, June 30, 2008

The Dreaded Un-American Accusation/Anthropology as Cultural Critique-Distance Learning Version

Will we ever be free of David Horowitz? The reason this blog began is to defend myself to myself. This summer I am teaching Distance Learning only. Seems the cost of gas and the lure of technology has driven all my students onto the Internet and out of the classroom. (I know, I know--the Internet is a virtual classroom, Blackboard is our savior, we can do as well online as face-to-face--more on this for another post--sarcasm is intended).

I have this little vignette posted on one of my Discussion Boards:

My own fieldwork was with a group of east African farmers in the modern nation-state of Tanzania. In my first week with them, they happily showed me around the village and carefully named off (in Swahili) all the multitude of plants surrounding us. No doubt, after several hours of this, I had a rather glazed look upon my face. I perked up when shown a coffee tree. My escorts noticed immediately my changed facial expression and wanted to know why this particular plant interested me. I told them that most Americans, myself included, drink coffee every morning but that I had never seen a coffee tree before. Within 30 seconds the entire village was discussing the strange Americans who consumed food that they had never seen before. It made me think how much we as Americans would rather not know about our food. I certainly do not want to know the details about what is in my hot dog at the ballpark. In Fast Food Nation ( a recently published book which in part inspired the film Supersize Me) we learn that the vast majority of all antibiotics given in the U.S. are given to cattle kept in unsanitary conditions awaiting slaughter for fast food restaurants. Most of us just don't want to know that. And, yet, we probably should.
I thought about that in Tanzania as I watched chickens being slaughtered by hand and my hosts laughed at the expression on my face. Once again, I was called on to explain. I could only laugh trying to explain supermarkets with Styrofoam trays of raw meat wrapped in cellophane. The assembled group of Tanzanians could not believe we Americans would eat chickens we did not personally know. My brain was busy thinking that I would much rather NOT know my chicken, particularly if I had to kill it myself. And yet, the good anthropologist inside me recognized that their way could well be healthier than ours. Freshly slaughtered and prepared chicken doesn't have time to accumulate salmonella. And who better knows the cleanliness of my own animal and hands than myself?
The AIDS epidemic has hit Africa very hard. In the very early days of condom distribution in Tanzania, many men questioned the safety of using them. They were leery of placing anything on the most intimate parts of their body that was made in a factory. Factories, for them, were a long way away and probably very unsanitary. Many development workers coming from more industrialized societies would probably find these views odd, if not outright ignorant, but given what I already knew about the way rural Tanzanians thought about their food and the world in general, their hesitation made sense to me. This is a good example of how anthropologists often think differently than other people

I have used this story for quite a few years in my face-to-face classes with great success. I posted it on my Distance Learning course as part of a longer discussion. When I ask them to reflect about how people's economic systems condition the way they see the world, I get at least one student who reads this story as an attack on America. After over 20 years of fielding this issue in the classroom, I must admit I find this the most frustrating discussion in Distance Learning. I have no physical way, through demeanour, manner, facial expression, to soften the discussion to a non-threatening level. It seems the more words I throw at the issue the more the hostility escalates. My frustration level is pretty high at this point; I mean, non-judgemental evalution is the starting point for anthropology. If I can't succeed in this discussion, where do I go from here?


Nicole Ives said...

Hi - I'm teaching anthropology online for the first time this semester and I too wonder if my "lectures" are being perceived in the way I intended. I have found a few instances in which I've had to post an announcement and say something like "a few of you seem to have taken my comments on blah blah as blah blah - what I wanted you to take from that was blah blah..." yeah, lay it all out.

I must say I'm jealous of your position - you are doing what I really want to do - teach anthro full time. I work full time in the distance learning office and only teach anthro as an adjunct - how I wish it were the other way around! this blog is a great idea!
-Nicole Ives
Prince George's Community College
Largo, MD

Pamthropologist said...

Thanks, Nicole!

Teaching online is one of the greatest challenges I have ever experienced. It takes an amazing skill set. I am hoping this blog allows a group of us to connect and compare notes and suggestions.

I do recognize how privileged I am. There are many faculty adjuncting in the Houston area. I started out adjuncting for three years and then was hired to teach full time on three campuses. I told my students my office was in my car--they could stand in the parking lot and I would pick them up and they could talk while I drove. Over the years, I got my load down to two campuses and this Fall, I will be down to one.

I think of all the disciplines, Anthropology is the most likely to be taught on an adjunct basis. (I think we are safe in this forum from our colleagues in other Departments chiming in to disagree.) Very few institutions want to invest in us. Anyway, even more of a compelling reason to start some kind of sharing network--like this blog.

Anonymous said...

This post immediately reminded me of a friend who had a student ( who also worked at the college) who decided that all social science was an attack on 'America".
With this kind of reaction, it is obvious that anth. is badly needed.When any variation is seen as a threat, or analysis as foreign, we have some problems.
I got some similar reactions to Americans disconnection from their food sources this last semester, as I had my students read either Kingsolvers 'Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" or Pollans 'Omnivores Dilemma". While neither is written by a social scientist ( I teach both Anth & Soc, so the books had to work for either) they both dealt with that theme.
BTW- about 70% of classes are now taught by adjunct faculty, so while we are in trouble in that respect, we are by no means alone.
Mike Pavlik

Pamthropologist said...

70%, Mike? Wow, I didn't know that. And most students are now in community colleges not universities. And so few resources for us.

I would love to hear more stories about readings that have worked--and I try to remind, myself that anger means its working. I can't get my kids to read anything. I bet we can all agree to that!