Friday, October 9, 2009

Making Anthropology "relevant": Do we really want to go there?

In my Real Life, I have been given a book proposal for a new intro to Cultural Anthropology to review. Its kind of bugging me as I make my way through the proposal because the unknown author seems to feels some compelling need to make Anthropology more "relevant" to students today. I suppose someone somewhere has some deep insight into what is relevant to students today, sorry. Don't think so. We all run around pretending to know our students and giving them that monolithic designation as if they are all the same. Maybe in some land of artificial, homogeneous people that would work. But, hello, we are talking about my Real Life, here, not a cyber-constructed reality.

So, what is the author really after? It seems like there are a lot more references made to American culture: American film, American internet experiences, American Second Life experiences. Did I miss something. Aren't we pretty much irrelevant these days? Dying on the vine. Throwing juvenile tantrums in our rapidly deteriorating playpens while we are ignored by the adults who really could care less about us--we aren't their children after all. Didn't I just read that we don't even control the internets anymore? How odd to argue we should be making Anthropology more relevant to the irrelevant.

And, since when do we really think education should consist of what they want to know? Do we really teach anthropology so they can understand themselves? Some of my best (funnest and well-received) lectures are completely irrelevant to the lives of students. Isn't that the point of Anthropology. How irrelevant we (Americans) and we (individuals) are?

I still have to read more. I hope things get better soon. Or I adopt another frame of mind--something more.....relevant?


thunga said...

Anthropology as a discipline is very comparitive & comprehensive in nature. It is very similar to astronomy in sciences. At the core of it, astronomy helps us understand physics in a better way. Similarly, anthropology should help us know ourselves in terms of philosophy/humanity. In the really long term, assuming the time when the sun dies, astronomy or physics will really not matter. Similarly, anthropology might also not lead us to any benefit.

There is a certain joy in understanding, linked with the survival of the fittest. 2nd law of entropy?

Okay, I might have gone way out of the way from your topic. But, somehow it doesnt seem to be too much out of the way too!a

Ryan Anderson said...

Well, a certain amount of relevance to contemporary social and political issues seems fairly warranted. There always has to be a balance between teaching the history and foundations of the discipline with what is being done today. To me, keeping anthropology 'relevant' means talking about what contemporary anthropologists are actually doing today, as opposed to pretending that it's still all about Mead, Malinowski, and Evans-Pritchard, or even Richard Lee.

I also think that teaching anthropology by incorporating a focus on local histories or issues is yet another way to illustrate certain concepts. Looking at the culture of baseball in the US, for example, can help illustrate the idea that 'culture' isn't just something that exists in exotic far away lands. I have always found the anthropology of 'home' to be pretty fascinating, but maybe that's just me.

But maybe I am talking about a different kind of relevance.

Pamthropologist said...

Perhaps this post shouldn't have been written as I don't feel it is proper to cite too many examples given the circumstances. However, what is done is done. I think we all make a lot of connections with the pre-existing knowledge base of students. And I agree with your comments, Ryan. And, of course, an understanding of humanity is always relevant for students. But must everything be connected to American perspectives and some kind of perceived need to make then personally reflective? Do students really need to understand the global economy only as it effects them personally? Do we really need to ask them to reflect personally on their own individual dietary choices? I am sure we all hope they will. But do our textbooks need to be organized around those perspectives with the argument that they won't read if the material isn't Americanized and individualized? I (personalized)? I would hope not.

Bill Guinee said...

It seems to me that the goal of relevance is an important one, but the key is in how we pursue it. One way is to use multiple examples and material that students are already interested in (themselves). For me, a much more important goal is teaching the students to see the relevance of things that they are not already interested in, to help them recognize that the rest of the world does matter and even has an impact on them. Of course this is much more difficult, but I feel that it is at the core of what anthropology is all about.

Pamthropologist said...

Exactly, Bill. Exactly.

Ryan Anderson said...

I agree with you as well, Bill. I guess there has to be ways to draw students in while still finding a means to show them that what is "relevant" extends beyond their own worldviews.

Pam wrote:

"But must everything be connected to American perspectives and some kind of perceived need to make then personally reflective? Do students really need to understand the global economy only as it effects them personally? Do we really need to ask them to reflect personally on their own individual dietary choices? I am sure we all hope they will."

No, I don't think it all has to be connected by any means. And I think that the pop culture references can easily be taken too far.

Still, I don't see why anthropological education cannot include examples and ideas that not only span the globe, but also include instances where they apply right down the street. For me there is a certain power in approaching these kinds of subjects on multiple levels.

Pam again:

"But do our textbooks need to be organized around those perspectives with the argument that they won't read if the material isn't Americanized and individualized? I (personalized)? I would hope not."

I don't think texts have to be Americanized to be appealing--they just have to present information in a way that balances anthropological rigor with a narrative and graphic style that doesn't suck. I think that some books might be leaning toward pop culture examples to attempt to be appealing...but one of the real underlying issues here is that a lot of academic writing isn't always presented in a way that's very interesting. Not all of it, but you gotta admit that we have a lot of books and articles that are great substitutes for sleeping pills.

Also, I think that subjects such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Second Life, American sports, popular media, and pop culture in general are obvious fertile ground for anthropology. But, the difficulty is presenting the complex sides of these kinds of things. While students can often see the "possibilities" of things like "globalization," it takes more time to teach them that just because THEY can email someone in China at a whim doesn't mean that this "new freedom" is accessible everywhere.

Sometimes I think that certain issues can be used as a hook to talk about larger processes, issues, and histories. But I agree with you both that this approach can all too easily lose sight of the larger picture in favor of subjects that can border on fads.

Angela said...

Pam wrote: "But must everything be connected to American perspectives and some kind of perceived need to make then personally reflective?"

I think you make an important point, and there is a major risk here. But at the same time, I have encountered many students who think that they make free, independent, rational decisions and everyone else is "brainwashed" by their culture. Challenging this assumption has often been one of my main goals and teaching students to see themselves from an outside point of view can be an important part of this process.

I have to say, though, that my perspective is shifting since I began a new job at a school with an almost entirely Black and Latino (and heavily immigrant) student population. I am really frustrated by textbooks that attempt to make anthropology relevant to the lives of students who are clearly assumed to be white, middle class Americans.

Barbara said...

As a longtime cultural anthropology professor (30 years) and anthropology textbook writer, I have a slightly different take on "relevance." Sure, when I write up the "marketing" bits for my books, I am likely to use the word "relevance." But I don't think we (anthropologists) have to "make" anthropology relevant to our students (whoever they are in terms of ethnicity, class, gender, etc), it IS relevant. For example, this past week, I gave my lecture on "kinship and households." I always get a bit anxious before the lecture because I present so many categories and concepts
(forms descent, marriage preferences and exchanges, etc). But, as usual, it is one of the most student-engaged clases (and I have 290 students sitting in a large auditorium). I ask the class questions like: is your family kinship system bilineal or patri/matrilineal? Do you want to get married? In terms of your ideal spouse or partner, are you (men) interested in someone taller than you? (Almost always all my male students do not raise their hand, or maybe one or two brave ones do!). And then I ask the same question of my female students... and it's exciting and fun to get the student responses.
Cultural anthropologists are really fortunate in being able to teach about the most interesting and important...and *relevant* material in the world.
Barbara Miller
Washington, DC

PS: Check out my blog, anthropologyworks, for ideas for class discussion that are *relevant* in a whole lot of ways!

Pamthropologist said...

Thank you, Barbara Miller. I, actually, use your text in my Cultural class. For what it is worth, I don't find that it overly panders to an america-centric student public. I think we all like to make connections in class but, for me, the print medium is a different issue.

Pamthropologist said...

I should add that I, also, teach a large hispanic population. It is a bit of a case of projection when we stand in front of them and assume the American culture we experience is the one they do. For example, I had about 2 students who watched Slumdog Millionaire last year. As a topic of discussion (bringing up the Indian pushback against it) it fell flat. They don't Twitter and only about half (if that) Facebook. My predominantly white A&M-Galveston students Facebook more. I am acutely conscious that "relevance" to my students is radically different from student to student. We, seriously, need to stop making ridiculous assumptions about them. They are diverse. Mine don't all share even a generational identity.

Pamthropologist said...

Thank you Angela and Ryan. Those are important contributions. Very important and different correctives.

Ryan Anderson said...

"We, seriously, need to stop making ridiculous assumptions about them."

That's a really good point. I do think that "anthropology students" can be overly reduced, as if they are just one giant like-thinking mass.

This has been an interesting discussion. Thanks, Pam.

Barbara said...

Hi everyone, So what are some content areas in cultural anthropology that are of special interest to your students, in your different classes? I just gave my lecture on "communication and language" and my GW students really loved my demonstration of Hini phonemes (I walk them through several), the material on dialects including Labov's early study of the pronunciation of "4th" in three NYC department stores, embodied langauge (esp hair styles as perhaps cuing sexuality), and media anthropology esp how cultural anths study tv and movies. --Barbara (PS, Pam: if you are interested, tell your rep that you would like to be a reviewer for revisions of my book, and I would very much value your insights!)

mack said...
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