What Anthropologists Do

The strength of anthropology is that we are always learning, gathering data isn’t something we do in a lab or even something we can easily shut off. We learn through immersion, living in the same cultural context as the people we are studying. We call it participant-observation occasionally even deep hanging out in an attempt to over emphasize the causal nature of one of our greatest tools. However, the point remains the same; we need to absorb the social context while simultaneously analyzing the layers of that reality and how they might affect the situation being studied. Then when the moment is right, we start asking thoughtful questions. Sometimes formally in a pre-planned interview setting and sometimes informally while sitting on a couch in someone’s living room or at a local fair in the park. One thoughtfully worded question, placed in the right setting and time, can reveal far more insightful information than a thousand questions asked without context. That is the argument of our discipline.

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.

 

Before I Go….

Things to Consider Before I Go…

As I finish packing, send last minute emails and meetings with professors, and antagonize over the finer details of the unplannable aspects of my two month long visit to Ireland, I am simultaneously faced with all the complications of anthropological fieldwork and international travel.

Even if I’ve managed to find all the cheapest but still safe places to stay means to travel (which I probably haven’t despite my best efforts), I am still left pondering all the hard anthropological questions of preliminary fieldwork …

Is my project going to be community focused, multi-sited, regional based, or somehow encompass the whole of Ireland?

I have my research topic and population, but what is my research issue?  In other words, how do I really sell my project as worthy of completing.  Sure it interests me, but as my dad puts it “why does it matter”?

How can I utilize my time as efficiently and effectively as possible?  I’ve written a project proposal and an IRB, so I have been contemplating this question for at least the past six months.  But it is definitely something I should ask myself everyday while I am in the field.

Finally, there are all those nagging questions of self-doubt, once I get there will I be able to find the people I am looking for?  Will people be willing to talk to me? Here’s hoping my natural charm and sweet disposition, not to mention the years of training, is enough to pull this off.

UpDate on Graduate School Progess

I just completed my 2nd year of graduate school.  I passed my comprehensive masters exam and graduated with my Masters of Arts in Cultural Anthropology.  This fall I am continuing in the Southern Methodist University’s PhD program for Cultural Anthropology.

(I am at the point where I am still having to remind myself I actually have my masters and then proceeding to do a little happy dance)

Massive hurdle overcome, I am currently preparing to go into the field and conduct my preliminary fieldwork.  This means two months in Ireland beginning my hands on research.  The healers I plan to work with don’t advertise to the public or have their numbers listed in the yellow pages so this summer’s research is going to begin by covering a lot of ground and investigating the project’s potential.

I am both incredibly excited and nervous at the same time.

I was very lucky to receive funding from an endowment to the Anthropology Department at SMU for my summer research.  I have my expedited IRB all but approved.  (I only needed to add three small details).  But somehow, I still feel like there is some key piece of advice or preparation I am missing.  However, I am guessing this is just nerves and anticipation.  After all, I was lucky enough to have an entire course of anthropology methods this spring.

One more week of preparation….  I leave June 6 and I plan to keep my blog up to date with photos and posts about my research while it is happening.

Wish Me Luck!

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?

 

Occupying the Future

A Vision of Students Today

This video is a little old, in internet terms at least.  It came out in 2007 while I was still in undergrad.  The video was made before college graduates of class of 2009 entered “the real world” to find by in large there was no place for them.  Here’s an old news report about it on ABC News.

The economic crisis hit home, when college graduates all across the nation realized there were no jobs waiting on them.  One of the outdated messages in this film says “when I graduate I will probably have a job that do not exist today,” it was a line we were told repeatedly growing up. In many ways, at the time at least, that statement seemed like the promise of tomorrow, the promise of a technological future.   However, we graduated and found those promised jobs we worked so hard for through high school and college, they still don’t exist.  I am not personally involved in any of the Occupy Movements, but as an anthropologist and a person that has lived through this moment in time, I’d like to point to this as the explanation and cause.  You can blame us I suppose if it makes you feel better, but anyone with a 21st century college degree isn’t lazy, dumb, or “whinny.”  College graduates of 2009, 2010, 2011, and those soon to graduate in 2012 worked hard fulfilling their obligation to Weber’s the “Protestant Work Ethic”.  Just to be admitted to college, young people of the 21st century were taught how to jump through many hoops our parents and grandparents never faced and arguably could not have passed even as adults.  We emerged from the “No Child Left Behind” Era labeled as “over achievers” in spite of ourselves.  If you don’t want to believe my biased insider view, the emic view for anthropologists, then that is fine: check out Alexandra Robbins’ book The Overachievers  or at least consider the New York Times book review of it.

Seven years down the road, I’d say we’ve fallen from grace because no matter what degree of concern adults expressed over the negative repercussions of this “overachieverness,” they were proud.  Sure it was a sign of neurosis on the national level but, hey, we were excelling at the hard-work end of the American Dream, surely it would pay off.  Yet seven years later, we are being depicted as throwing a nation-wide temper-tantrum.  Foxnews labels it a “passing outburst” in this online report and it is only one among many.  Even those who try to take the middle road seem to either find the movement unreasonable or totally missing the point.  In a Forbes article written to explain the movement to its readers, Peter Cohan proves he missed the point in this statement arguing for OWS activist to meet corporations in the middle, where he writes, “Corporations provide many benefits to society — they use people, capital, and technology to create value for consumers, employees, shareholders, and communities.”  He openly, perhaps without realizing it wrote “they use people.”   But, I’m getting off point.

My point is that the 2005 overachievers did everything asked and expected of them and more.  They graduated in 2009, if you follow the 4 year collegiate model,  then faced great difficulty getting jobs, particularly in getting jobs in their chosen field.  The United States was in no way unique in this: my first graduate school paper was on a very similar crisis in the Republic of Ireland which pushed many young people to emigrate for work.  However, I was one of the lucky ones.  I did not get a job in my field but I did find a graduate program, which I began in the fall of 2010.  This was not the case for many of my fellow graduates.  For those who might think this failure to find work is the result of laziness or a lack of earnest effort, please consider the rate of unemployment from 2009 to 2012 and the fact that most of those who have graduated during the recession are not drawing unemployment because they were students and never were employed at a full time job.  There is a gap in time between the lack of employment of college grads in May 2009 and the OWS movement which began in the summer 2011.  Despite the global economic crisis, college grads continued to look for work or apply to graduate school/law school/med school or volunteer for non-profit organizations and NGOs.  But like everyone else looking for a job, those who found an opening were lucky.  When the OWS idea was first proposed it found incredibly fertile ground and the movement spread like wildfire, to mix metaphors.  It is my hope and prayer that from the ashes, a new and better America can grow and blossom.

While this movement can in many ways be described most affectionately as organized chaos, the motivation and meaning behind it sends a message of hope for the future of America. In many ways, I think it is time to realize we’ve entered adulthood and had the weight of the world put on our shoulders, but  let’s get over the shock, disappointment, frustration, and anger…  Collectively, our generation has resources, assets, and skills beyond the wildest imaginations of our parents and grandparents, I want to see us do something. The protests and boycotts across this nation and aboard are evidence of our determination and powerful sense of right and wrong.  I am not asking for the protest to end, but I have to think this is only the beginning.  I am calling for further collaboration.  Corporations and political/governmental organizations utilize think-tanks all the time with dramatic innovative results.  We are connected in a way generations before us could not have dreamed of.  We’ve occupied the streets, now what?  There are plenty of social, political, financial, and environmental issues to go around.  Let’s put together an online think-tanks to address them.  Why let our intelligence, our education, and the energy of our youth go to waste?  Collaboration, especially online collaboration, can take place anywhere and anytime (as long as you have power and signal).  Why should we wait for anyone else to organize us?  Those jobs that we were promised, the ones that don’t exist yet?  The only solution is that we have to create them ourselves.  Our parents, our teachers, and our government, they can’t really help us with this.  So many problems have been put off by those who came before us, and put on to our shoulders.  It’s time to face those problems head on.  We’ve all got unique and invaluable skill sets and the technology and social networks to make this happen.  So pick a topic: social inequality (pick a type), the energy crisis, government encroachment on civil liberties and human rights globally and at home, chronic illness, cancer, HIV, the US health care system, global hunger/malnutrition, debt and balancing the budget (on the personal, household, institutional, and governmental levels), social change toward social accountability and respect of human dignity, citizenship and national boarders, improving US international relations, environmental repercussions of pollution and resource exploitation…  the list is endless.  Create online discussions of these issues, everyone knows you can occupy and post to blogs and facebook at the same time.  Make us of Google Plus’s “hangouts” and really get the conversations going.  Make blog post about your ideas, possible solutions, and give each other feedback.  After all, everything on the internet is peer-reviewed, so show the world that means something.  For the young people who are currently unemployeed, unemployment doesn’t mean you can’t be occupied.  Young people still in college, in graduate school, or starting your first job: we have to stay connected, no matter how busy things get.  We each have a unique and valuable skill set and set of resources to offer.  We have to build for the future, come up with practical solutions and get interdisciplinary with it.  A chemist, a political scientist, and a writer could come together and create a whole new way of seeing the world.  History shows us the great leaps forward which can be made by a person looking at a problem from more than one angle: Renee Descartes, Johnannes Kepler, Issac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Franz Boas, Albert Schweitzer,  Edward Said, Theodore Roosevelt, and Leonardo De Vinci to name a few.  We are facing a very important moment in time and a great deal of potential energy has been built up hover now is the time to direct that energy toward creating the type of future we want for ourselves and those who come after us.