Processing Anthropology from an Undergraduate Student’s Perspective
May, 18, 2014
Anthropology courses and curricula are experienced by students uniquely, as each student brings a unique perspective to the classroom, fieldwork, readings, and assignments. Among the various factors that contribute to this perspective, such as reasons for taking the course or previous education within and outside of the department, is the student’s identity—race, ethnicity, class background, language, gender, etc. My own time in anthropology courses has shown that students can hear and understand the same anthropological concepts from the same lecture or activity in very different, sometimes even contradicting, ways. Usually, this is due to the background knowledge with which they associate, process, and understand the new concepts. This idea is supported by what I’ve learned from various faculty and student groups concerned with teaching and learning.
To illustrate, I’ve written a brief poem that depicts how the complex abstractions of anthropological theories and dispositions can be experienced by someone of my own identity, of which the most salient roles and cultures are: working class, rural, white, woman, first-generation college student, soon-to-be graduate student, and social justice advocate. These poems describe some experiences I’ve had in which my anthropological self has battled with the rest of my identity, particularly the part of me that belongs to a rural, working class community where I internalized the values of progress, sophistication, ultimate truth, and objectivity (all at which my anthropological self tries not to scoff).
When I debate and when I drink
at the same time, I hear superfluous
words bloom from my mouth like flowers
on a vine of thorny, twisting rhetoric,
and I feel shame later that night
for the pride that followed the surprise
and the smirk of a linguist whose
tongue ran away with her brain.
Delighted, my buried gears of novel
exploration creak to churn, like a kid
on the floor in front of a TV gaming
system, one up, new level, new world to be
conquered. Like cocaine for the brain,
classification of nature, objective construction
of constructs, theory, thoughts,
science, my affinity for these modernist-
esteemed mental masturbations
stems from within me, just like the
guilt with which my stomach turns
to my heart, accusing it of deviating
from the more moral, more honest, more
socially responsible version of the truth.
Versions of the truth, a phrase that ignites
a heavy and damp weight that fills my
mind when I hear and invalidate the phrase
“proud of you” and my core when I
realized that graduate school is equal to,
but different from the factory, the hammer,
the desk, the wrench, the anchor,
and the kitchen. Was it unconscious
avoidance of these paths or ignorantly taken
steps that have put me on the never-ending
staircase version of reality?
Mostly, I just want, need, to know: Do I
gracefully accept the compliment, the praise;
explain, again, that all the other
accomplishments are just as good;
or smile, nod, and say, “now, can you tell me
what it means to you? And is it okay if I record this?”
In debriefing, it is important that I emphasize what many undergraduate anthropology majors would claim—I’ve fallen in love with anthropology. Indeed, when I see the world from the discipline’s perspective, I feel enlightened, excited, motivated, and hopeful. However, as these poems demonstrate, certain anthropological concepts can be quite difficult for students, even the most dedicated and enamored, to fully internalize. Those of us who grew up in communities operating within modernist thinking and goals wrestle with anthropology’s cultural relativism, multiplicity of reality, and obligation to be socially relevant, however much we aspire to these ideals. While in the classroom we are engaging in description and explanation, growing more impassioned about and committed to anthropological principles, outside the classroom we are embedded in webs of thought and practice that can be very contradictory to what we were emphatically expressing hours before.
However, I would argue that the mental and emotional wrestling in the poems is evidence that the anthropological perspective is slowly gaining ground. It is a positive transformation of reconceptualizing anthropology to be more than ideas that are associated with background knowledge and recalled in the classroom, but, rather, to be dispositions from which we experience and act in the world. This doesn’t mean that all majors will share the same perspective in their final semesters, but that we have begun to learn and experience anthropology outside of the classroom in situations where it is relevant to and/or conflicting with our lives. Pedagogically, this is rich material that can be accessed and discussed to help students inhabit the anthropological mindset. However, it is sensitive and emotionally-charged, so the classroom may not be as safe or well suited for these discussions as writing assignments, student groups, and mentorships. Ultimately, it is important and helpful that anthropology professors recognize that their students process anthropological ideas uniquely, with respect to their backgrounds, and, demonstrating growth into the discipline, in their day-to-day experiences.
Caitlin Homrich is a recent graduate of the anthropology program at Central Michigan University and will attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst starting in the fall of 2014. She has worked on research projects about how first-generation college students experience the path to the PhD, how underrepresented college students navigate their identities as Honors students, and, as a capstone ethnography, how a rural mid-west community and school negotiate the discrepancies between educational mandates and community values. She intends to continue work within the anthropology of education, but hopes to incorporate a four-field perspective into her research. If you’d like to contact her, she can be reached at chomrich@