What is Anthropology?

It’s a question I’ve been asked to ponder in a strangely wide variety of situations lately. Teaching high school Seniors, Juniors, two Sophomores, and 8th graders mathematics this year found myself explaining a lot of new topics I never intended to, but my chosen field of study anthropology is chief among them.

Then on Spring Break, I was asked by a Depth Psychologist to explain exactly what anthropology was, on an 8th grade level.  I thought great! I’ve got some experience actually doing this.  I told her, “Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human in all its variety over all time and space, all around the world and throughout history and pre-history. Anthropologists are fascinated by all things human. We, of course, have different specialties, cultural anthropologists study people alive here and now, by observing them, talking to them, and participating in the cultural traditions we seek to understand as much as possible.”  My colleague’s elegant answer was the famous but hard to attribute quote, “Anthropology is the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the sciences.” Then I looked at her and told her, “Honestly, maybe it has something to do with where I grew up, but I always saw Anthropology, especially anthropology as a teaching tool, as a tool for breaking down fear and prejudice born from the unknown. Anthropology allows us to understand each other’s cultures a little better, see through one another’s worldview if we take the time, and perhaps bring a little more compassion and understanding into the world. But I guess that’s a little sappy.”

Anthropology’s ultimate goal: to understand the human condition.

Teaching anthropology is the best step I can personally take to do my part for world peace. Changing one mind at a time.

Performance Enhancing Drugs – College Edition

Passing with Pills: Redefining Performance in the Pharmaceuticalized University”  is a very thoughtful and thought provoking ethnographic look in the mirror.  Tazin Karim of Michigan State University did an excellent job applying a critical, medical anthropological lens to academia and the pressures of the rite of passage in America referred to as college.  
When discussing the exportation/globalization of mental illness and Western pharmaceuticals, undergrads in both my Intro to Anthropology discussion sections admitted to knowing a ‘friends’ who used Academic Performance enhancing drugs …  I have to admit my own caffeine dependence could fall in the same category.  American culture in general gives preference to substances which promote productivity and the University is no exception.  A few of my students discussed being prescribed Ritalin and Adderall long before they entered a college campus.  One girl described for us how ease it had been for her best friend to get a prescription, which she used primarily to write papers and make it through finals week.  

I think this is a very serious issue which is largely ignored because it gets the desired results and is socially linked to productivity and achievement.  For my part, some might argue that I am part of the problem, as a graduate student and teaching assistant who was aware of these thinly veiled “confessions.”   But I am 25 years old which makes me only a few years older than most of my students and this time four years ago I was the undergrad who had close friends doing the same thing.  However, it also raises an important ethical issue.  This was information I gained from a semester of building rapport with my students and a safe environment for discussion in my classroom.  In that moment, I saw my responsibility in guiding my students to think critically about the social and structural pressures that make the need for academic performance drugs and in interrogating the problematic dichotomy between legal prescription drugs and illegal drugs.  I pushed them to critically think about any substance they put in their body and I urged them to be accountable for researching these medicines, their purpose and their side effects.  In that classroom, I felt that was the extent of my ability to influence the matter.

But as a medical anthropologist, I think this is definitely an issue which merits further investigation and careful attention to potential solutions that address this “inconvenient truth.”  Karim’s narratives demonstrate the hidden reality on our campuses.  I hope to see more work along these lines in the future.

 

The Future of Education

Highly political and frequently more opinionated than well grounded, the subject of education in America is seen as vital to the future of our nation and ironically at times it seems to be influenced more by public opinion than by academia…  Again your response to this  statement, maybe more based on opinion (or emotional response) than on empirical data.

But moving beyond those matters, it is my opinion that the future of education is an educational format which speaks to new way which we experience the world living in an era marked by the digital revolution.  Like the industrial revolution and the agricultural revolution before it, despite the resistance or rejection by a few isolated groups of digital revolution is not only changing what we do and how we experience the world, but it is also for better or worse changing the way in which we think and view the world.   The long-term implications are highly debated particularly in regards to education.  The future of education demands a complete rethinking of how we envision the educational process.  In an article to the Kansas Star, Joe Robertson calls for a revolution in education.  This echos many of the concerns I have contemplated while experiencing the educational process from the unique perspective of the graduate student who is simultaneously student and educator.  While I am currently fairly limited in the degree of variation I am allowed to introduce into the classroom as a teaching assistant, running my own discussion section lab this semester as left me in constant reflection of how I could improve the engagement potential of my teaching style and classroom.

Blogs

So far I have come to the concrete conclusion that essays outside of research centered upper-level courses are fairly impractical.  Instead, I propose assigning students blog posts.  You can still give writing prompts and parameters, but I know that my own writing flows much easier on a blog than in a word document (maybe its just purely psychological).  The downside of course is that blogs intend to be much more informal which fuels the debate calling my generation the “Dumbest Generation”  But I would argue that does not have to be the case (acedamic bloggers still write academically) and blogs tend to do a better job of concisely expressing  ideas.  Also from the perspective of  checking student’s work and sources, in a blog students could back up arguments with hyperlinks rather than distracting footnotes, endnotes, or in parenthetical citations.  For those of you questioning the utility of this in writing the requires “academic” sources, remember that your students get their articles online.  The dedication and knowledge required to locate and copy academic articles in dusty binders in the library is not on most undergraduate agendas.  Blogs also allow students to receive feedback from their peers as well as the professor, something primarily reserved for the publication process or graduate level training.  I anticipate that the knowledge that your peers can read your work will actually push competitive students and shame others into striving for a high standard than is normally found in college level essays.  Finally, I see blog writing as being more relevant as a form communication in their future lives.

Lectures

Written assignments addressed, my other major concern is how to adapt the lecture to the 21st century.  Don’t get me wrong, I love powerpoint and smartboards but I can’t help but think there as to be something more.  I recently learned of a newish software that allows for more creative design/interactivity in presentation making.  It is called Prezi and is keeps your presentations on a “cloud” type server database.  I think if done correctly this type of interactive presentation not only provides a visual road map of the lecture but also combines visual learn, auditory learning, and textual learning.  Watching my classmate use this type of presentation definitely left with the impression that this is better suited for keeping student’s attention because it interactive, multi-focal stimulation most “digital natives” are accustom to.  However, I do not by any means think Prezi is a final solution.

Many professors already include videos or documentaries to supplement their lectures.  However, depending on how it is done it could be disruptive to the flow of the board lecture.  I have two examples which I think best present the type of interactive, multi-focal  learning that will be required to revolutionize education.  The youtube channels Crash Course and SciShow pack more information into their 3 to 10 minute video than most professors do in 50 minute lectures.  **After writing that sentence, I realized that this  most likely isn’t true.**  It is most likely that  students/digital natives (me included) are somehow able to take more away from these multi-layered, information packed films than we do from uni-layered lectures.  A secondary perk of these films is that students can also replay the lecture as many times as necessary to get in missed sinppets of information.   These films require teams not one professor to produce and the process is definitely time intensive, which is definitely a downside, but you must consider that these films can be accessed all across the globe and rewatched infinitely.  Based on quality alone and the benefit to public education of these two youtube channels, I would definitely encourage other disciplines to explore the possibility of creating similar videos to explain all the topics covered in introductory courses.

While this is still definitely more of me thinking out loud than seriously planning, I’d love fed back on the following suggestion.  Introduction courses could begin with one such video made specifically for the topic of the day, either by the professor or an expert on the topic.  Following the video the professor could take questions from the students supplementing responses with suggestions of sources for further reading and anecdotes from his or her own research.   The class could be concluded with guided or open discussion of the video, the day’s readings, and points the students wanted to discuss from their blogs.  Thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions of things you’ve seen work?