I’ve previously discussed the necessity for prospective graduate students to articulate how their research must contribute to the field as well as the greater good of the public. Last time it was mostly me rambling about my grad school-related fears, this time, however, I’m concerned about the relevance my research has outside the field. My fears of academic irrelevance recently resurfaced after reading archaeologist Dr. Michael Smith’s blog and a book chapter he recommended called From Studious Irrelevancy to Consilient Knowledge: Modes of Scholarship and Cultural Anthropology (Pascal Boyer). Boyer argues that cultural anthropology is, “too busy with obscure academic fads and self-inspection” to address public debates, such as gay marriage or immigration (114-115), and, ultimately, “has gradually narrowed its focus to a few obscure problems,” with the goal to make novel, salient connections because, “saying something new…is what matters.” (123). Smith aptly remarks that you could easily put “archaeology” in place of “cultural anthropology” as archaeologists face similar issues.
Additionally, today in Anthropology News, contributor and lecturer Angela C Jenks asks the field to “reimagine” the typical anthropology student in the classroom by creating assignments that allow students to apply anthropology’s holistic approach to contemporary social problems. There seems to be a disconnect between the anthropologist and the public. We need to eloquently and succinct communicate how anthropology, and its subfields, is useful for understanding and hopefully remedying social and economic issues.
The goal to contextualize our research to address a greater issue is noble, yet, utterly overwhelming. How on earth can I make a connection between research brought to you from a random tomb in the middle of nowhere South America? I jest, but still, my fears are legitimate, and in order to get funding (esp from NSF), research ideas have to be needed, appreciated, and easily communicated. I have been so immersed in my world of academic jargon and concepts that it almost seems like I can speak another language. If I want to be a part of this scholarly world, it is imperative that I can articulate my research and its relevance to the specialists and novices. Specialists are intimidating and basically terrifying, but I at least feel semi-confident in my ability to speak to them.
The novices are who worry me. I didn’t used to be as worried as most people are aware of archaeology and think it’s pretty cool. Even those people who ask me if I am Indiana Jones or like digging up dinosaurs present a (desperate) need for my field!
But I’ve recently discovered that there are several people who, shall we say, need more convincing. So while bartending last fall in Peru, I developed something similar to the “90-second elevator speech” that I called the Barstool Test; an exercise that required me to determine (1) if I can articulate my research goals in a coherent manner to any individual who sat down at the bar, (2) whether these individuals find these research goals relevant. I would only have the duration of the beer/cocktail/quesadillas to state my research, capture their interest, and ultimately explain why I thought such questions were relevant. It sounds a little ridiculous, why on earth would I bother these weary backpackers? But I engaged in the “backpacker small talk” on a daily basis: “where did you just come from? Where are you going next? Where are you from? Did you like Cusco?” It was a little repetitive, so most people welcomed a change from the normal dialogue.
In general, I met a surprising range of people…young artists living a penniless existence; recently liberated cooperate captives who were taking some time off to find themselves; and even academics who finished with graduate school and wanted to take time off before starting their Phd or applying for jobs. I met someone who studied molecular biology and was applying postdoc position in South Africa to work with AIDS patients. I became friends with a girl who graduated from high school and decided that she wasn’t ready for college, so she was volunteering in a local orphanage instead. All sorts of people passed through this bar, with different goals, backgrounds, worldviews, you name it. Everyone found archaeology fascinating. Granted, most of these people came to Peru to see Machu Picchu, so you would think that these people had some interest in archaeology. I thought I had an unfair advantage.
Or so I thought.
One afternoon, I was working the bar when this seemingly friendly and outgoing guy came into the bar. I asked him his name, what he did, etc etc. He was from London and worked as a consultant to an oil company. He then asked me what I did, so I gave him my, “I’m an bioarchaeologist” blurb. Andes, bones, empires, tombs, cultural heritage, historic preservation, tourism, museums, etc. etc.
I couldn’t believe what he said next, “I personally don’t understand the purpose or appeal of archaeology.” I thought he was kidding, I thought this was a prime example of dry British humor, but he was serious. I had to say, “Right, tell me, did you enjoy your trip to Machu Picchu, you know, the most well-known archaeological ruin IN THE WORLD.” Maybe he was just one of those people who doesn’t really travel foreign places to experience “the other”, but just wants a picture of him standing in front of the famous pyramid/cathedral/temple/volcano/tower and updates his status from his iPhone complaining that no one speaks English while standing in line at the nearest McDonalds/Starbucks. Luckily, other patrons and the bar staff all soon realized that he was a jerk, so I didn’t feel like I completely failed the Barstool Test.
I have numerous memories of positive experiences: people who were interested in my research, asked questions about archaeology, and others who took recommendations from me to visit lesser known sites. But the memory of that guy will stay with me forever. It’s annoying, true, but that encounter taught me that I might be pitching my ideals and goals to people who couldn’t care less. Do I need to rewrite my 90-second elevator speech or simply ignore those who refuse to have their minds changed? That is the challenge we anthropologist face.