Thursday, July 31, 2008

Talking Culture

Last week you might have noticed a gap in posting. I was the victim of a bizarre dog-walking incident. I ended up straining a neck muscle and spent two days with my head propped up at just-the-right-angle. The end result was that I could read but not type. And I found myself reading what was within reach which turned out to be a book on the history and theory of anthropology--probably Alan Barnard--but I am avoiding unnecessary twisting movements so you are on your own on that until it comes within my grasp again.

I shudder to say that I got to revisit the 80's and Clifford and Marcus' tortured discussions in Writing Culture and in my confined state, I found my mind thinking about issues of teaching culture over and over and over again. I thought about doing the math but I was afraid I might relieve my neck pain by attempting to remove my head with whatever sharp instrument was within grabbing range if I actually assigned a figure to how many times I have taught the intro course. Some 20 years of at least 4 sections every semester plus summers. That's a lot of talking culture.

One of the problems I battle is that after awhile I forget how I know what I know. I do a bit on Evans-Pritchard's Azande work; you know the wonderful collapsing rice barn "extra step in people's theory of causation" explanation. I change it up and do a semi-fictionalized account using a made up group the "bongo-bongo". I actually stole the idea of fictionalizing the episode from Peter Metcalfe at UVa, at least I think it was Metcalfe but then I remember that I also had Ben Ray's African Religion class at UVa and maybe I got it there. I picked up some other bits after meeting R.S. O'Fahey who knew E-P and then I did, actually, take a class in grad school from Mary Douglas. I usually include a discussion of E-P's conversion to Catholicism pulling in issues of objectivity and personal transformation. And, by then, I become confused about where I get the bits and bobs of the lecture.

Anyway, I have come to learn that the more I lecture the more distance I get from the original material and the more I become concerned with my own objectivity and personal transformation afffecting the lecture. But rather than ponder the nature of the creation of my own partial truth, what Clifford might call my fiction, I go re-read Evans-Pritchard (which makes me more than happy because I adore Evans-Pritchard) and the writings on him. Because, in the end, my audience is not myself, it is my students. And almost every day I need to create an experiential moment with them--score one for the small triumph of a partial truth.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Podcasting the Other

So the folks at Apple have rolled out their latest endeavor called iTunes U. At first glance, it seems to be a rather extensive list of lectures, etc. on a huge array of topics. Searching Anthropology brought up not only the new AAA podcasts but also a Distance Learning Course taught by Joylin Namie at Utah Valley State College. I downloaded lecture number #1 "What is Anthropology" (which took an inordinate amount of time--but I am on the old home laptop, which has a couple of years on it) and watched a bit while chewing my mental cud about using it for my own Distance Learning course.

It seems somehow bizarre to use someone else's lectures for teaching my course. While watching the first half of the lecture, I found myself extra-sensitive to the difference between Namie's perspective and my own. In the grand scheme of things, there is little difference between us but, yet, some difference exists. And those tiny differences suddenly seemed disproportionately important. Would I be happier if I just made my own podcasts? One of my colleagues has begun to do that for those times when he must be absent from his classroom class.

So, I pulled myself out of those thoughts and tried to decide if students would actually get through the whole series. It seemed a strangely passive experience to watch her panel of students ask pat questions. Was I a bit bored because I already know it all (after all, its just the intro lecture) or would a student also find their mind wandering? Is that any different than what my students experience in class every day? Can they do just as well with reading the text on their own, after all it seems somehow faster and not that different when you factor in reading the power point slides which pop up during her lectures.

Its very early going, I mean I only got through the first lecture but still...

For such an opinionated person, I sure am having trouble forming an opinion.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Dinner Encounter with The Other? The Anthropophagy Map

From Strange Maps comes a really fun map and a series of teachable moments. The Anthropophagy (human cannibalism) Map. Time for some critical thinking. Discuss the differences between human consumption for protein purposes and ritual cannibalism (think Marvin Harris). What meanings are attached to acts of ritual cannibalism (think Sanday)? Discuss the historical evidence supporting the production of this map. In what ways is the production of this map contingent on the assumption that other people "walk on their heads" (think Arens)? What definitive archaeological evidence do we need to argue for anthropophagy (think coprolites). Did Idi Amin (a reported practioner of anthropophagy) really count as human? Did the use of the phrase "she's a man eater" by Hall and Oates, reference a probable case of anthropophagy? Does this discussion go better if we use the French spelling with the more feminine and dimunitive "ie" for the term, anthropophagie?

Newbies to teaching intro courses, you will be asked to explain these issues, better bone up on them. *groan*.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Corn Today; Hair Tomorrow

Recently, my monthly alumni enewsletter arrived in my inbox with the funnest article and associated video. The piece explores the work of "The Hair Detective", an organic chemist at the University of Virginia (Go 'Hoos!). Stephen Macko uses hair samples to determine the probable diet of an individual. Among his fascinating finds are the differences to be found between the Moche ruling elite versus their sacrificial victims. It seems protein analysis of the remains of the Moche elite shows a diet marked by the heavy consumption of corn-based animal protein (llama) whereas the supposed sacrificial victims found at Moche sites show more extensive consumption of aquatic proteins, thus, arguing for a coastal origin of these individuals. Different diets, different populations? Or Marie Antoinette, saying "let them eat fish"? Food for thought.

Here is the You Tube description of his work:

Among the dinosaur bones and 4.5-billion-year-old meteorites on the shelves of Stephen Macko's office are tiny plastic containers that hold hair samples from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, George Washington, Oetzi the iceman and Diane Sawyer.

An odd assembly, perhaps, but locked within each strand are clues about appetites both ancient and modern. Hair functions as a nuanced physical record of diet over time, "much like a tape recording," says Macko, a U.Va. professor of environmental sciences. He applies the tools of organic chemistry to solve mysteries in fields as diverse as anthropology, nutrition and agricultural policy. How did the lifestyles of ancient Egyptian nobility differ from the lower classes? How accurate are the ingredient lists on product labels? Did Poe's peculiar poetry arise from pollutants in the air he was breathing? Do Americans eat too much corn?
For the full article (The UVAMagazine) click here and enjoy. Or go straight to the video on You Tube.

The whole article conjures up such fond memories of trekking to Clark Hall (one of the more interesting building on campus--once you become desensitized to Jefferson's Rotunda and the beauties of the Lawn) to nervously try to successfully pass the environmental science classes that my adviser, Steve Plog, recommended I take. Principles of Ecology nearly did me in. But what a lovely experience to see the genuine joy these scientists take in using their skill set to advance knowledge outside their own disciplines. True academic camaraderie and the joy of learning.

File this one under Inspirational Bits and Teachable Moments

Follow the article through to the end and you will discover that, today, we eat corn and high fructose corn syrup, and more corn. It would appear that we are comprised almost entirely of corn. How many corny jokes am I avoiding? On the strength of this piece, I have ordered the documentary King Corn. It comes highly recommended from a variety of sources. More after viewing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Beware the Tonton Macoutes

Autocratic dictatorship, forced relocation, declining standards of living, cronyism, vent for surplus model of economic growth, underdevelopment of human capital, an oppressed peasantry, fake trappings of modernity, poverty, ignorance, inhumanity.

Myanmar under the military junta?
Haiti under Papa Doc?
Uganda under Idi Amin?
Cambodia under Pol Pot?

Nah, its just where I work.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Keith Hart: Anthropology and Globalis(z)ation Lecture

I found this recent posting on You Tube of a Keith Hart lecture: it is posted in five parts: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five. He is clearly uncomfortable with the technology but if you can get beyond your own discomfort watching his discomfort, it is worth the effort. In the end, he makes a really nice argument for the need to approach anthropological issues by avoiding the middle-range of social categorization: like ethnic group, class, gender, culture or even the nation-state. Hart has been one of those who have seized on the realization that what has been called the era of "national capital" is quickly passing us by as large corporations extend far beyond the economic and organizational boundaries of the nation-state.

But where does this lead anthropology and our chosen domain of ethnography?

He advocates more fluid forms of inclusion of the human experience; perhaps by focusing on the story of individuals as they experience these changes. Referencing two well-know and widely-assigned undergraduate works: Shostak's Nisa and Mintz' Worker in the Cane as examples, he argues that incorporating the real human stories of individuals may allow anthropology to push its way out of the categories we have been bound by. When I think of my own dissertation work, it is always the individual stories that stand out and have meaning for me and my students. I have hopes of adding these stories to this blog from time to time with the goal of sharing those bits which have moved knowledge forward in my classes.

I have found Hart's blog (which accompanies his latest book: The Memory Bank: Money in an Unequal World).


I can't wait to poke around. He is such an original thinker.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Not just Crooked Timber but Falling Wood

I just had to post something, because that picture of Bret Michaels was making even me queasy. Spent today getting estimates for the tree damage in my back yard. On the 4th this year our fireworks were preceded by storms and heavy rain and not one but two split trees in the back yard. So far, the cheapest offer is $750. Half my extra summer money for the month which, of course, was tagged for other needs. I always tell my students that that is the "oh, shit" moment. The one all societies have to account for. Time to attach some meaning.

Did I piss off my ancestors? Did my envious neighbors feel I needed to be reigned in from my self-centered ways? Had I stepped on the wrong bit of animal feces walking the dog and offended my group totem?

Let's go with Marx. Why the hell can't we college instructors band together, get some class consciousness, force some serious collective bargaining...wait, skip that...straight Marx...let's burn down the administration building and seize control. I need some collective labor in the back yard--profit free. Lots of it.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Bret Michaels Narrative: or never piss off a stripper redux

There have been some polite inquiries about the last blog post from gentle souls far too polite to post a comment. With your kind indulgence, I will expand a bit. The woman pictured on the blog page is "Heather" one of the two finalists in Rock of Love, Season One. And, yes, she is the "stripper who became pissed off". This clip shows her statements at her exit from the show and some rather interesting reasoning about what is owed to a woman who tattoos your name on the back of her neck.

I daresay my students were far more interested in other issues in the running of the show (the tattooing always releases loud hoots and jeers as does the general drunken debauchery and liberal use of stripper poles) but one of the fascinating aspects of the show for the interpretive anthropologist in me was the (no doubt, scripted) narrative that Bret Michaels employed week after week to dismiss the women in a way that reinforced the constructed image of him as a caring, sensitive man. Some of his successful themes included the repetition that had they had more "time to get to know each other" they may have made a match, that the "time" was just not right for each of them. (A former contestant from Season One who goes by the nickname of Rodeo, has been quoted many times as saying that she believes that they would be together today, if not for her having to leave the show prematurely to return to her son who had fallen ill.)

For Heather, widely and continually viewed by all the other contestants on the show (both Seasons one and two) as Bret's "natural" match, another narrative of rejection was employed. The song continually played on the show, his biggest hit, "Every Rose Has It's Thorn", was, supposedly written by Bret about his failed relationship with a stripper. And Heather was a stripper--meaning, she had been paid to act in that capacity. An important distinction, in a setting where the use of a stripper pole does not a stripper make. The label "stripper" comes to define the totality of Heather as a person and depending on your perspective prevents or saves her from becoming Bret's chosen one.

The final couple of episodes went out of their way to portray Heather as of questionable and, most certainly, out of control sexuality in much the same way that British Colonial society in Africa depicted African women; although, as is more fitting of our cultural context, it was the suggestion of bisexuality and a willingness to "share" Bret that was used to discredit Heather-- both of which Heather vehemently denies. And we arrive full circle at the anger that Heather experiences in losing control of her own identity and public image.

I will leave it to you to attach all the additional meanings you choose to the ongoing narrative. It is a fertile field. But students are able to tease out some of the meanings in regard to gender, love, and the codes of treatment we have internalized as members of a TV watching American society. And, yes, you can take it a bit further and suggest some personal ethics (as I tell them, I am a "mom" after all and with the label comes some territory).

Never Piss Off a Stripper: the ethnography of reality television

Lisa Wynn's article, "What is a prostitute?" from American Sexuality Magazine (a publication of the National Sexuality Resource Center) is making its rounds of the Anthro blogs this week.

It started at Culture Matters, made its way to Antropologi and was cross-posted at Alternet where there was some mildly interesting follow-up discussion. The article was a relatively casual musing on the use of the label of "prostitute" in Egypt. Not surprisingly, from the anthropological point of view, the label is not easily applied for the simple case of "sex for money". Rather, the term represents a complex judgment by Wynn's Egyptian informants and friends as to a woman's behavior and appearance relative to her social position. Wynn indicates in the follow-up discussion at Alternet that she believes interesting comparisons can be made with American beliefs and terminologies (whether the English-language term "whore" works as a substitute, for example)--although, in the article, she is quick to point out that her own initial judgment of the use of the term was filtered through the American lens of payment made for sexual services rendered.

I wonder if she has ever watched Rock of Love on VH1? For the last two semesters, my classes and I have been discussing the phenomenal success (it was the most watched cable T.V. show of 2007, I believe) of this reality, dating show whose stated goal is to find a woman who can "rock the world" of Bret Michaels, the apparently follicly challenged, bandanna-wearing lead singer of the '80's hair band Poison. In on-going class discussion my students, much like Lisa Wynn, have explored the terminology, philosophies, and judgments of the contestants on the show and our own reaction to them. For example, in both seasons of the shows, the female contestants have spent an inordinate amount of time discussing which women are truly "there for Bret". Quick and harsh judgments are levied against those few contestants who question whether Bret would meet their needs. My students became quite adroit at guessing who would be the next aspirant to be eliminated based on the "not there for Bret" criteria. I wish now I could replay those discussion with a new twist. The application of the term" ho "(16 pages of definition at the Urban Dictionary): its meaning and the circumstance of its use on the show.

Most of these discussion were very useful. Not only were students active and engaged, it allowed them to think for themselves; to engage with anthropological ideas in an arena where they felt competent. And you know, the shock value of the discussion, actually, worked in my favor. It was artificial, to be sure, but it still had the feel of the "exotic". It was not your usual academic discussion and it took them out of their comfort zone in all the right ways.

My happiest moment came, however, when I did one of our discussion wrap-ups. In my years of teaching, I have learned to always end any free-range discussion with the phrase. "What did we learn?" The response by one of my young men? "Never piss off a stripper!" His mother would be proud.

BTW: Season One is out on DVD.

Updated: Anthro Blog Contest Followers, Part II of this post (with the actual tattoo reference) can be found here. So, keep reading.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Breaking News

University of Phoenix's parent company the Apollo Group reports an 11% increase in enrollment and a 14% increase in revenue for the quarter, according to the NYTimes:

Swell. Guess that means they are rising from the ashes of our current recession.

A Blog on Blogs

Short and sweet. An amazingly rich discussion of blogging in Archaeology magazine. The links should prove useful in any intro archy course:

I am shortly to introduce my first Distance Learning ANTH 2302: Introduction to Archaeology course and I am busy chewing my mental cud on the best way to approach the whole thing. At the moment I am overwhelmed by the vast quantity of Archaeology resources on the net. I should have known, in graduate school the archys were always the ones with all the technological savy--what with their bitnet and fat Macs. Yes, that was from the era of Devo, black leggings, and hair mousse-all things, which as I recall, archys avoided.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Celebrity in the Classroom: My Angelina Jolie Rant

My daughter is performing her (very late) morning routine. Its usually a fairly loud activity. Much bustle and water running. She has the E entertainment channel on and there is breaking news. Angelina Jolie has checked into a French hospital for the approaching birth of her twins.

I usually end up with a rant about Angelina Jolie once a semester. The rant usually is aimed at a world were nobility is measured in adopting "the other". Saving the poor Africans from their own selves. Way back in 1994, I did some consultancy work for US AID and the International Red Cross. It was a "rapid assessment survey" aimed at gaining a rough and ready picture of children who had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS in Tanzania, the so-called "AIDS orphans". We worked closely with the Tanzanian Ministry of Health. It was made very clear that on no condition should we make any recommendations which would include an expansion of the role of orphanages. It is a core value of the modern nation-state of Tanzania that families be preferenced over orphanages. Our charge was to find ways to enable families to take in their kin not abandon them.

Those issues have flitted across the world stage of celebrity gossip with Madonna's controversial adoption of a young boy in Malawi. I usually try to point out to my students that governmental policies for these east African nations would be for the boy's father (who remains alive) to be in the position of securely caring for his own son. Inevitably, as the Geertz quote at the bottom of this blog indicates, we turn to the discussion of our own popular culture messages: will these children be "better off" living in the fishbowl existences of Madonna's or Brad and Angelina's life?

When my daughter leaves for college next month, I fear I am going to have a hard time keeping up with the issues with which our students relate. Although, I suppose I will now have an easy justification for reading all the US Weekly's when I get my hair done and watching every episode of Dr. Drew's celebrity addiction series on VH1.

Next up, I think, will be a post on my past academic year's foray into the anthropological analysis of Rock of Love. We had great fun with that. I wonder what other issues others have found great success with? When I started teaching I had a favorite Northern Exposure episode I showed every semester. I, also, have a fondness for the original South Park Christmas Episode with Mr. Hanky the Christmas poo standing in as the ultimate cultural universal--I have never had the nerve to actually show it for fear of complaints to the Dean but I nearly always reference it with a good number of students chiming in their approval.