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?

Why "Teaching Anthropology"?

I teach Anthropology at a Community College.....I teach it over and over and over again. Mostly Cultural with some Archaeology and the four field introduction floats in and out. I read the Savage Minds blog and others and realize how far my life has come from graduate school. And, yet, after time spent in Africa, I feel the relevancy of my chosen path more with each passing day. I have come to believe that the higher reaches of a more academic and esoteric Anthropology may be beyond my grasp these days but the basic undergraduate, simple message of seeing the world through the lenses of others is worth teaching.

But, being the lone anthropologist in a large system, I am alone. By that I mean, I have no colleagues to share my success, failures, and rants. I am creating this blog in an attempt to remedy some of those shortfalls.