Conference Transcript: “Slipping Into Darkness: Recruiting and Student Understanding of Anthropology as a Field and Major”

This is the transcript for the talk I gave at Skeletal Biology in the Carolina conference. You can see the PPT here: Slipping into Darkness

Slide 1

  1. Introduction

Slide 2

  1. This project examines the state of anthropology, particularly paying close attention to diversity at the undergraduate level.
  2. If you take a look at these two charts; they represent the number of undergraduate degrees awarded to majors in select social sciences.
  3. Over the last decade, social science in general has seen a small amount of growth, along with psychology and economics, while anthropology has remained flat. This is in lieu of an increase in 4-year university enrollment over the same period.
  4. UNC-Charlotte has outpaced the national trends in social science degrees, except by anthropology.
  5. I thought this was interesting, so I wanted to dig a little deeper and see what constituted those numbers.

Slide 3

  1. Anthropology heralds itself as a discipline of diversity. This is evident by the 1950 UNESCO statement on race, in part authored by anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss and Ashley Montagu.
  2. Ruth Benedict is quoted as stating that “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference.” This indicates a moral position occupied by the discipline.
  3. The top results of a quick Google search of “anthropology” and “diversity” yields departmental diversity statements as you can see here.
  4. Anthropology makes a big deal out of appreciating diversity and inclusion but what does this look like in practice.

Slide 4

  1. At the national level, among degrees awarded to the sampled social sciences, anthropology ranks as the least diverse of the disciplines, with 64.3% of anthropology graduates identifying as white.
  2. Economics and political science are the only other disciplines that comes close, at 61.4 and 62% respectively.
  3. Sociology, on the other hand, is 48.8% white.
  4. Furthermore, black students only constitute 4.7% of anthropology graduates. For social sciences in general, black graduates make up 10.3% and sociology is 17.8%; nearly 4 times that of anthropology.

Slide 5

  1. The picture here at UNCC is a bit less grim. At UNCC, we outpace the national trend for diversity. However, anthropology still lags behind the other disciplines as we still award the smallest percentage of degrees to black students.
  2. Current university enrollment for students identifying as white is about 57%, anthropology awards 61% of the BAs to white students. Black students constitute nearly 16% of the student body but only make up 10.7% the degrees conferred in anthropology.
  3. Sociology on the other hand, awards 32% of their undergraduate degrees to black students, and over half of all degrees to students of color.

Slide 6

  1. This raises the question: how do we attract more diverse majors?
  2. This is not say that we want to recruit token minorities in order to live by the mantra we preach. Instead, it is acknowledging that anthropology is at its most productive when diverse voices are brought together to better understand who we are and where we come from.
  3. I see three main challenges when trying to accomplish this.
  4. First, anthropology needs to increase visibility.
  5. Second, anthropology needs to frame itself as relevant to solving real human problems.
  6. And finally, it needs to diversify its faculty.

Slide 7

  1. In order to situate ourselves in the minds of students, we need to decide what it is that we do.
  2. The AAAs defines anthropology as the study of what makes us human.
    1. While this is a concise definition, it doesn’t have that certain ring.
  3. The textbook I use for my introduction to anthropology course says that anthropology is the study of human beings, their biology, their prehistory and histories, and their changing languages, cultures, and social institutions.
    1. While this definition accurately depicts anthropology, it is a bit of a mouthful.
  4. I prefer Jon Marks’ definition, the study of who we are and where we come from. It’s direct and provocative.
  5. Regardless of what we call ourselves, students don’t know what we are.

Slide 8

  1. For the last year, I have been surveying my students in Introduction to Anthropology. On the first day of the semester, before I do the obligatory syllabus tour, I have the students answer several questions.
  2. The first couple are innocuous: what is your year and what is your major. I usually have about 60% freshmen from all across campus.
  3. The next two are a little more introspective: why did you sign up for this course? And what do you hope to get out of it?
    1. They usually sign up because their advisors told them to and most hope to either “learn something” or “get an A.”
  4. The final question is the most interesting. Without any exposition, I ask them “What is anthropology?”
    1. Since the survey is done on their phones over PollEverywhere, some look it up on Wikipedia. Despite this, the responses are telling.
    2. 273 students, mostly freshmen, have responded and have no idea what anthropology is. About 18% of students simply respond “I don’t know”, “dunno”, or “beats me boss, I will learn.”
    3. Including misc. and not coded—because their answers had nothing to do with anthropology or were nonsense—that makes up 35% of all respondents.
    4. Another 35% articulated one of the many subfields of anthropology.
    5. Less than 30% of students responded as either the “study of humans” or gave a holistic definition.

Slide 9

  1. This indicates that students, and by extension the public, have no idea what anthropology is.
  2. In order to overcome this, anthropology needs to situate itself in the public light. We cannot afford to isolate ourselves in our ivory tower. There has to be a more intentional focus on making anthropology accessible to the public. Our last AAA meeting was themed Anthropology Matters! We know it does and we need to share that with the public.
  3. By doing more than simply holding conferences touting that anthropology matters and releasing statements supporting or castigating certain events, we should be more active and public as a discipline in enacting anthropological values: anti-racism, anti-sexism, and non-reductionism.
  4. On the university campus, we also need to be more visible. At UNCC, the anthropology department is currently located in the jungle, next to the botanical gardens, and away from the rest of campus. While this is temporary, we need to make a concerted effort to engage with the university as a whole, holding more events, and inviting students from across campus in to experience the field. For instance, ECU has a series called Anthropology After Dark that shares the significant work done within the department and gives tours of the facilities. This will take place on National Anthropology Day- February 19.
  5. Tabling outside of the Student Union and exposing ourselves through a presence on the many LCD screens around campus could also pique interest.

Slide 10

  1. Following from visibility, anthropology also needs to present itself as relevant. After the survey, I play the responses as a word cloud on the projector. I then interrogate the students in order to get a feel for how they see anthropology relating to their lives.
  2. Students overwhelmingly see anthropology as an ephemeral field that produces knowledge about who we are and where we come from but don’t initially see the value and real world impact that anthropology has.
  3. Fortunately, through active learning activities and the excellent textbook, students see the tangible results but it isn’t evident upfront.
  4. We need to be sure to explicitly communicate the relevance of anthropology in our classes and contextualize the value of anthropology and the concepts we are teaching them.
  5. Beyond the methodologies and knowledge that anthropology brings to the table, it also provides students with indispensable skills that will serve them well in their future professions and in life.
  6. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that anthropology requires skills associated with problem-solving and interpersonal engagement, such as critical thinking, speaking, and judgement and decision making. These skills are highly desired by any potential employer and are generally useful life-skills.

Slide 11

  1. The final challenge is diversifying anthropology faculty.
  2. Karen Brodkin argues that minority faculty are still underrepresented in anthropology departments and furthermore, they experience various levels of discrimination, leading her to refer to anthropology as a “White Public Space.”
  3. She found that work generated by scholars of color was marginalized and they were responsible for “diversity duty” as opposed to being motivated to develop their own research despite no difference in publications between white faculty and those of color.
  4. Students of color reported that they received less faculty mentoring when developing their research proposals and preparing their research for publication.
  5. Racialized minority faculty with PhDs in anthropology were more likely to be in ethnic or gender studies departments than in departments with anthropology in the title.
  6. Furthermore, Brodkin found that the white anthropologists surveyed saw ethnic studies as incompatible with anthropology and many programs have no courses that explicitly deal with issues of race.
  7. By diversifying faculty AND perspectives in departments, anthropology programs can recruit a more diverse cohort of students and create a space where they can develop in their interests and incorporate their perspectives into the anthropological narrative.
  8. Courses that deal explicitly with race, gender, and inequality can train new anthropologists to attack these problems head on, making anthropology that much more relevant.

Slide 12

  1. To conclude, we already know how great anthropology is. We can’t keep that to ourselves. We need to frame it as a means to not only learn about who we are and where we come from, but also solve real human problems like racism, sexism, and socioeconomic inequality.
  2. Instead of posturing and talking about diversity, we need to live it.
  3. If we can’t continually attract new, bright students from all different kinds of backgrounds, anthropology will slip into darkness. We owe it to ourselves and our students.


3 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s