Friday, November 2, 2012

Post-Storm Thoughts: Seeing How the Other Half Lives

I live and work in the suburban counties surrounding NYC, so I’m currently living with some of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Compared to many in the region, I’m doing quite home has power, my work is up and running...basically my life is very close to normal. One of my earliest posts in 2011 on this blog documented my pre-Hurricane Irene worries. This post is a sequel of sorts to describe some of my thoughts and experiences in a post-storm environment.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Considering Context: Biographies of Violence and Non-Violence

Blogging sure happens in fits and starts. The many distractions (teaching and administrative) of the fall semester put a quick end to my post-prolific August. Much of the time at work, I feel like a pinball bouncing around the board. However, recently, a couple of bell-ringing, lighted prongs knocked me into writing up this post.

Earlier this week, I was asked to participate in an informal discussion about the the “roots of violence” in human beings with a biologist and a political scientist. As I began to think about my component of the discussion, I definitely wanted to highlight the contextual nature of human behavior, which sometimes can include violent actions, and to counter any kind of claim about an essential predisposition to primordial barbarism. It was to be an informal talk, so I didn’t want to prepare some comprehensive take, like offered in Agustín Fuentes’ new book, but was hoping for a more intimate discussion of humans and violence. What’s a busy professor to do?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Early Semester Formless Monsters

In 101 courses, I have consistently run into problems getting across the importance of symbols in anthropology, and human life in general. In an “aha” moment that I wish would have hit me long ago, I think a major area of confusion stems from the very different usages of the word, symbol, in academic vs. popular conversations.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Newbie Preconceptions: How 101 Views Anthropology

I spent my last post bemoaning the canceling of some anthropology sections and pondering if better public branding would help. Keeping with such marketing-inspired thinking, I attempted some focus group research last week in the first meeting of one of my cultural anthropology sections to see what the preconceptions of young Americans with no experience in anthropology were.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

End of Summer Bummers: Which Way the August Wind Blows

In addition to teaching, I've been working as a department chair for the past two years. Just this semester, I've gotten used to the hectic pace of the first couple weeks of the semester. My main concerns this week (classes begin Monday) are to staff courses in which adjunct instructors found they couldn't cover those sections only recently and cancelling low enrolled classes. It's the latter that's become difficult this semester.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Thinking About Course Readings, Fall 2012

Since it’s back to school time, I’m reviewing my syllabi in preparation for getting the semester started. Further, yesterday I read through Jason Antrosio’s review of the reader, Applying Anthropology. Subsequently, I’ve decided the spend this post thinking about the mix of readings I plan to use this semester.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Robin's Lament: the Semiotic Limits of a Little Brother

Yesterday, my youngest son reached his second birthday. In his honor, I’m following up Holy Semiosis, Batman! with this brief addition.  Really though, the real reason i'm writing this post  is that once I started thinking in terms of interpretation and semiosis, I couldn’t stop.

Monday, August 13, 2012


Driving to work this morning, the radio was filled with examinations of Paul Ryan's budget proposals.  His focus on individualism and his disdain for any kind of meaningful social support systems struck me as fundamentally inhumane, in the broadest sense.  I'm not offering any lengthy discussion here, but Ryan's fairy tale vision of a nation brimming with little  Horatio Algers being held back by taxes and regulation makes me sick.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Holy Semiosis, Batman!

Iconic Interpretation
Obvious, isn't it?
This morning, my four year old son was deep into a shadow puppet performance of some kind of robot-on-Joker conflict, when he noticed an unexpected shadow of a small, toy dalmatian dog. He exclaimed, “hey, it’s Batman.” I took a look and for a few seconds couldn’t tell what he was talking about, but then my eyes found the shape and I saw a vague resemblance between the shadow and some version of the Batmobile (I know, it’s a bit like a Rorschach test). Then, a few seconds later, I was struck, “hey, that’s a Peircian icon and index!” I was then struck by what a complex cognitive process this kind of semiosis, or meaning making, is and how amazing that my superhero-obsessed son could do it so easily, and in doing so, demonstrate an essential part of being human.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Discarded Bagels and Bags

Every once in awhile, different threads of teaching randomly come together and generate new understandings and ways to communicate to students. In this post, I’ll describe how I found myself weaving together cultural relativism, archaeological method and criticisms of capitalism in ways that fostered my own insight and I hope can be used as teaching tools.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Finds Them and Kills Them: Mirrors of Masculinity and Violence

Earlier in the spring semester, I was doing a fairly standard discussion on cross-cultural gender diversity in order to illustrate the constructed character of gender. Like a greatest hits of anthropology, we came to the general institution of Two Spirit, sanctioned identity(ies) among many Native American societies that accommodates people that most Americans would classify as transgender (and many...most would stigmatize as well?). This is usually a relatively easy talk to engage students with as they’re much more titillated by sex and gender than subsistence and economics. A modification to this particular class session amplified that interest level. This time, I added a new individual to the discussion, Osh Tisch, a member of the Crow nation who lived in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Osh Tisch fits the general concept of Two Spirit, but my students were much more taken with her than the other peoples profiled. Osh Tisch acted like an exotic prism--talking about this very different cultural institutions broke down the students’ own views on gender making them much clearer.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Genes, Identity, Authenticity, Rigged Systems and Justin Bieber

I’m not super proud of this, but as I was surfing through news stories this morning, I felt compelled to click on a story which highlighted excerpts of an upcoming Rolling Stone interview with Justin Bieber. I don’t know why I might be a little bit fascinated by a celebrity, who appears about 13 years old, but seems to attract a lot of strange, young, lustful attention. I guess there’s just something creepy about it all that I find intriguing. Anthropologically, he also seems a nexus of gender, generation, sex, art, commodification, and now...views European Americans often hold about the place in society held by Native North Americans.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Early (and I mean early) Immigration and Genetic Testing: Why Isn't Everyone On Board?

The big news in the anthropological world of the past few days has been the stone tool and genetic evidence coming out of the University of Oregon’s field school at Paisley Caves. It’s exciting stuff. It has, however, again brought up the long-running contentious relationship between anthropologists (i.e. Western Science) and Native American communities--in this case, particularly those in the US, as only two tribal groups agreed to having genetic samples used in the study.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Of Gods and Tacos

One of the most consistent themes in this blog has been my constant search for good examples and/or metaphors that make anthropological ideas more accessible. In another effort to get my blogging momentum back, here’s a quick take on a recent inspiration.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Changing Habits and Good, Concise Arguments

I've taken a lengthy break from the blog and am trying a short post to get myself back in the habit.  This spring, I had a barrage of administrative projects and then an archaeological field school to run over June.  Subsequently, my attention was diverted away from this blog.  The biggest problem, though, is simple neglect through habit.  Once I'd lost the habit of writing up posts, my motivation dried up.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Metaphors of Buying and Owning

Over the past weekend, I attended a conference focused on increasing undergraduate access to and participation in research. The topic was interesting and worthwhile, though I was repeatedly struck by the sort of language used to positively connote the benefits to students participating in research. Repeatedly, presenters spoke of community college faculty and administration needing to “buy in” to supporting undergraduate research. In another vein, speakers discussed the benefits of students gaining a sense of “ownership” of research. Metaphors of private property and consumerism were fully visible.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Trying to Go Against the Grain: Teaching about the Neolithic and Civilization

In a previous post (The Content of the Form), I noted how many prehistory texts still implicitly paint the human story as one with a definite direction and that direction being towards complexity and hierarchy--the teleological march towards civilization. In my classes, I’m attempting to highlight this hidden story to illustrate its assumptions and how it sometimes can misdirect us from other interesting stories.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Anthro 101: The Exotic and Mundane

Since I teach at a community college, I only teach introductory anthropology classes. While it would be nice to do an upper level class every once in awhile, I’m happy with my position and I do really enjoy introductory classes and think they potentially have a lot of social worth. However, they do pose significant challenges. One of the most daunting is how to make anthropology accessible and meaningful to first and second year students. Most of them have a million things on their mind besides the esoteric weirdness that can sometimes be anthropology. Most work close to full time job schedules outside of school and when in school, most are focused on classes as a means to an end--using school to get ahead professionally and financially. I can’t begrudge them any of those distractions. So I face a potentially tough audience several times a week. But, it’s an audience that I want to impact. I want them to leave my class thinking about themselves and their relationships with other human beings in a new way.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Small Take on Open Access

I don’t have too much to offer to the ongoing discussion on anthropology blogs about the idea of open access (I'll be lazy and simply link to Anthropology Report's coverage), but thought I’d give voice to my little part of the world teaching anthropology at a community college. For me, I support the idea simply because I like the notion of being easily aware of important discussions within the discipline. I can quickly know what the cool kids (said sincerely and without derision) are talking about, despite the fact that I’m the professional equivalent of a basement-dwelling, World of Warcraft-playing introverted hermit (take this recent Savage Minds post for instance).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Race and Consequence: "Reality" and Social Constructs

Thanks to many of the posts examining race over at Living Anthropologically , I got turned onto Lance Gravlee’s 2009 article, “Race Becomes Biology.” There are a lot of reasons to like the article, but in particular, he brings attention to a recurrent problem I have when talking about race to students. Students definitely do usually interpret the traditional anthropological critique of race as “oh, anthropologists say race doesn’t exist, so it’s not important.” And while that’s clearly not what I’m arguing in class, it’s painstakingly difficult to clearly articulate the nuance.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Individualism Rears Its Head Again: Student Views on the "Girls Gone Wild" Effect

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, teaching college students provides a great opportunity to examine their cultural worlds--a kind of class time as mini-ethnography. One of the most salient symbolic themes that comes across in the classes I’ve been in is the deep commitment to individualism--individuals act in the world entirely according to their own intent, unaffected by social context, and should be completely held accountable for their actions. That’s not surprising as individualism is a core value of American culture--just look at the rhetoric spewing out of the Republican primary contest. What’s become more surprising is the myriad ways that that individualism bubbles up.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Anthro 101 Readings: Early Marriage Among the Maasai

Despite teaching introductory anthropology classes, as much as I can, I like to incorporate readings beyond the textbook. I usually include ten to a dozen journal articles throughout the semester. This can be a spectacular failure, like when 75% of the class fails to read or are caught completely off guard by the level of the reading that I’m expecting, but I believe it’s important to expose even new students to the “real” world of anthropology in more professional, academic literature.