Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Quick Take on Talking about Race

I’m almost finished talking about the “race” concept in my cultural anthropology class. As much as possible, I’m emphasizing two important points--humans are biologically variable and that the usual conception of “race” found in American culture is a social construction that doesn’t adequately describe that biological variation (though it does nicely serve as an ideological justification for social, political and economic stratification).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

More Harm than Good--Perils of Teaching about Anthropology and War to those Who've Been There

Easily, the majority of my students have had very provincial experiences by the time I encounter them. Despite living an easy hour drive from New York City, a good percentage of them have never made it there (and you know what you can do if you make it there). Far from having international experience, for many, their young lives have taken place entirely in the county, much less the country, of their birth. For them, that means that an intro to cultural anthropology class exposes them to very new peoples and ideas.

Increasingly, however, another population of students is filling my classes; a group that has traveled much more extensively and that has had repeated and sometimes very intense interactions with folks from very different cultural backgrounds. I’m not sure what the student profile looks like at four-year schools, but at my two-year one, students who are returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are becoming a small, but important segment of the student population (A piece last year from the Chronicle indicates that community colleges and for-profit schools are the most popular choices for recent veterans).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Nádleehí, Ways of Knowing and Mutual Inclusion

Real cross-cultural understanding is sometimes a hard thing to get across. Often, I find that students are interested and can appreciate other ways of seeing the world, but a core ethnocentrism remains. When talking about very different cultural worldviews with students, I get the feeling that there’s a sense of “isn’t that quaint,” but that Western culture is still more closely aligned with reality and that other understandings of the world are a bit backwards. In other words, Western culture has less baggage that obscures our vision of the functioning of the “real” world. One of the subjects where this is the most apparent in the discussion of gender.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Teaching New World (pre)History

One of the persistent dilemmas I’m faced with as a teacher is how to get across important information in a way that makes a difference, both for a student and the larger society. As a professor at a community college, I don’t see my primary professional obligation as producing new anthropologists. Instead, I’m out to promote an understanding of other peoples and other ways of life through a critical examination of ethnographic and archaeological records.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Metaphors, Marbles and Monopoly

As I've noted on this blog a few times, I'm a big fan of metaphors that simplify complex concepts, making them accessible to college freshman and sophomores.  I was pleased to see my recent post on the metaphor of a "Braided River" to describe human population history received some attention (though, I definitely didn't develop that metaphor myself--see the comments on the original post for more information on original references).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Adorable and Transgender, Innocent and Subversive

I ran across this photo the other day thanks to Feminist Frequency. In light of Sociological Images’ usual skewering of sexist Halloween costumes, I found this pink Darth Vader so striking--in a good way.


The costume is cute, subversive, adorable, transgender, innocent and well-executed all at once. It’s a bundle of culturally contradictory (again, in a good way) messages about gender. There’s the combination of Darth Vader--usually gendered as male. The tall, dark menacing figure with one of the deepest voices imaginable is the most iconic character in a movie series that is known for its heavily male fan following. But the costume’s pink coloring genders it female. As far as Halloween costumes go, it’s not the usual female costume because it’s not creating a “sexy” persona (unfortunately, this trend is not confined to costumes designed for adults. Women and girls can use male costumes as a sense of empowerment, but this pink Darth Vader’s empowerment can’t derive entirely from that as it’s full pink--the most completely gendered color.

Since I first saw the image, it's been stuck in my head as such a simple and great example of how symbols so central to our culture and gender ideology can be remade to send very different and even radical messages--all in the package a child's costume.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Talking about Modern and Ancient Peoples

Update: 11/21/11:  Just ran across this earlier blog post by PZ Meyers that uses the same metaphor, much earlier than my use.

I just finished reading John Hawks’s recent post discussing a new paper by Pontus Skoglund and Mattias Jakobsson, which examines the presence of Denisovan heritage in living peoples. I’m no geneticist, so I’m not offering any take on the bulk of the post, but I was struck by his final paragraph. In it, Hawks discusses how even a “small” drop of Denisovan DNA still translates into quite a big modern, genetic splash:

I should mention: less than one percent of a half billion people is still a very large number, added to five percent of the indigenous population of New Guinea and Australia, and smaller fractions of other island populations. The total amount of Denisovan legacy present in living people probably exceeds the population of Earth at the time the Denisovans lived.