Academia

Why Anthropology Matters (now more than ever)

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Excited chatter echoes down the second floor corridor as a group of middle school girls approaches the door to the osteology lab. The young women file into the lab wide-eyed, curiously craning their necks to see the rows of bones on the shelves and tables. “Are those real?” They ask, pointing to a row of skulls or the complete skeleton on the table, “are those someone’s bones?”

Typically, I begin these GiST (Girls in STEM at Tulane) workshops by introducing myself and welcoming them to the New Life in Buried Bones workshop. Today, I tell them, you all will learn about the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites and in forensic cases. Using the examples of bones with dental disease and cranial modification, I show these young women how human bones inform us on ancient life. They always love to hear gory forensic cases, so I make sure to include a few examples of blunt-force trauma and gun-shot wounds. For those interested in medicine or biomechanics, I give demonstrations of how repetitive motions to two joint surfaces can result in boney changes and sometimes even osteoarthritis. Every once in a while, one girl will exclaim that she also wants to be a bioarchaeolgist or a forensic anthropologist when she grows up.

Today, this workshop felt as if it would be different. Today, my enthusiasm felt strained. I had spent the last few days deliberating over what I was going to say to these girls. I could not simply pretend that everything was okay. It certainly wasn’t. I could not think of words eloquent enough to express how distraught I felt. Today, it was my job to stand in front of these young women and tell them that her education was one of the most important things she’ll ever have. She shouldn’t feel discouraged when she fails, or when her peers let her down. I was supposed to tell her that the bullies don’t win in the end. Hard work and critical thinking are invaluable. Being bold, imaginative, and fearless is what leads to innovation and discovery. The world is full of its problems, but she has the ability to tackle the most insurmountable challenges. Pursuing science, I would tell her, is one way to do that.

Today, those words felt hallow, flippant, and simply untrue. I should be thinking of ways to encourage and inspire these women, but instead, in light of this week’s election, I was plagued with memories of all the troubles I had when I was their age. I thought of the bullies, male peers who harassed me for answering questions in class or commented on my appearance, as if that had something to do with my value or intelligence. How was I supposed to tell them that no matter how impressive her accomplishments, there will be that person who attempts to discredit her, belittle her, and make her feel worthless? Worst of all, how am I supposed to tell her that all of these problems are simply a phase, and that things will get better after middle and high school? She has a bright future, I should tell her. She would be accepted to university based on her merits. But would always be someone there, a real or fictions demon on her shoulder whispering in her ear that she only got in because she’s a woman, a woman of color, an immigrant, a LGBT? I shudder to think of those who said similar things to me (and I enjoy more privilege than most); those men who said or implied that I took their spot, that being a woman gave me a competitive edge they did not enjoy. Forgot that maybe my successes meant I was qualified. Someone had to be blamed, and I was the unlucky winner.

As much as I wanted to unleash my own frustrations, I knew that was not the best way to proceed. I am sad, I am angry, but I am certainly not going to back down and admit defeat.

Instead, I will look to my greatest comfort: anthropology.

What is anthropology? I ask the young women.

“The study of human bones!”

“The study of ancient societies!”

“The study of artifacts and archaeology!”

“The study of culture!”

You are all correct, I tell them, these are all important aspects of being human and they are intimately interconnected and manifest in infinite, fascinating ways. Anthropology is the science of human beings. We have the tool kit of a scientist: we ask questions, formulate hypotheses, make observations of the evidence, and evaluate our results. Our goal is to understand the complexities of human nature, why humans do what we do. It is during that fascinating, fulfilling, and sometimes frustrating journey that we discover how valuable and rare our open-mindedness and thirst for understanding is in the world.

My fellow anthropologists, all you linguists, cultural and medical anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and primatologists, you know this. And it thrills me to call you my friends and colleagues.

But to those who are unfamiliar with what I do, this is for you. Anthropology is not simply an intellectual oddity tucked away in the ivory towers of university campuses. It cannot be buried in piles of jargon-heavy books and articles, though that doesn’t mean some haven’t tried. Studying the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life enables us to understand why diseases spread and why crops fail. This science of human nature allows us to explore why societies commissioned art to inspire creativity or to evoke a sense of the divine. Anthropology explores how empires expand and collapse. It does not shy away from discussions of race, gender, and colonialism; in fact, it confronts these debates head-on, challenging us to critically evaluate our past mistakes so that our future is full of thoughtful, well-informed decisions. To an anthropologist, why early humans migrated out of Africa, over Beringia, and went to the moon seems almost obvious. Humans are wired to look to the horizon, across oceans, and up at the night sky: we want to go beyond our known world to see what lies just out of reach.

Anthropology has comforted me these last few days. Hatred and fear are simply the symptoms of ignorance, and it can spread like wildfire if left unchecked and unchallenged. To be an anthropologist is to understand human similarities and differences. We do not hate the unknown nor fear the challenges of this ever-changing world. Instead, we build connections with our global community and to the past by studying cultures, ancient societies, and their material correlates; we do not build walls. Anthropology is a discipline that has the power to understand who we were. It is more important now than ever that we recognize that anthropology also has the indispensable power to help us decide who we are and who we want to be.

So today, as I looked at those excited, hopeful, bright young women in the osteology lab, I tell them I decided to study anthropology because I wanted to fully comprehend and appreciate the complex, beautiful world around me. In the words of Ruth Benedict, I tell them, “the purposes of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

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To be the Brave and Imperfect Female Graduate Student

To Celebrate International Women’s Day, I decided to forgo my typical academic-esque post. I am not one for personal stories, but a recent realization has inspired me to address one particularly significant issue we ladies of academic face.

Over the last few weeks, I have noticed an unsettling pattern in my conversations, particularly with my professors. For the past two semesters I have been enrolled in two classes that have been particularly challenging for me: Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Statistical Inferences and Analysis. Both classes have, to put it lightly, tested my patience. There were times in the GIS lab, as a realized I was closing in on hour 6 of time spent on a project, that I wondered what on earth possessed me to follow this particular career. I tend to pick up concepts quickly, be it from an innate ability to understand information quickly or just working hard. Yet, in both of these classes, that immediate, satisfying comprehension did not necessarily arrive in the timely manner I am used to. Instead I struggled. Instead I’d agonize over whether or not I was typing commands correctly in ArchGIS. I’d get frustrated when I did not immediately understand the different types of z-scores. It was not until the other day when both of these professors told me, independent of each other, that the main reason I struggled with these classes was because I was afraid of not doing the assignment perfectly.

 

This struck a cord with me, and it wasn’t a happy tune. Yesterday evening, I stumbled across a TED talk by Reshma Saujani titled, “Teach girls to be brave, not perfect,” in which Saujani discusses how woman have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and are therefore overly cautious. Saujani cites studies of fifth graders found that the more intelligent the girls, the more more likely they were to give up on a difficult assignment, while the more the intelligent the boys, the more likely they were to meet the challenge. Young girls were more afraid of showing their imperfection while attempting to complete the assignment. Saujani says women do not necessarily suffer from a lack of confidence, but it is this socialization of perfection that causes women to take less risks in their careers. If women were socialized to be brave, rather than socialized to be perfect, that could move society forward.

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All graduate students already, shall we say, encounter a daily  crisis-of-self (or maybe that’s just me). Be it from coursework, grant writing, or just the ongoing battle of “will-I-get-a-job-that-isn’t-at-a-banana-stand?” saga (though there is always money in the banana stand), I think there is an additional issue that plagues graduate students, particularly females. I think that many of us were (and continue to be) socialized to strive for perfection.Why are we so concerned with being perfect? Wouldn’t it be more useful for our academic careers to be socialized to take risks, to be unafraid of failure, to be brave?

During my classes, I notice that females are not particularly vocal in class. Maybe we don’t speak out in class because we don’t want to sound unintelligent. In her insightful guest blog for “The Professor is In”, Karen Cardozo also explores this topic, noting that women take fewer chances and risks than men. “For example, in test-taking studies, researchers found that upon closer inspection, perceived gender differences in performances resulted not from wrong answers, but from women’s greater tendency to leave an answer blank when unsure about it (thus eliminating even partial odds of hitting upon the correct answer).  When the experiments were revised to insert the instruction “do not leave any answers blank,” there was no gender disparity in performance.” Furthermore,  studies have shown that males tend to dominate classroom discussions compared to females, possibly because, “women prove to be extremely vulnerable to interruption. Numerous studies have demonstrated that in mixed-sex conversations, women are interrupted far more frequently than men are…Moreover, once interrupted, women sometimes stayed out of the discussion for the remainder of the class hour.” While, luckily, my male peers do not interrupt my female colleagues, I should point out that in order to change the socialization of perfection into bravery, it will take the efforts of both females and males.

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Since I began applying for graduate school, I had multiple professors (all female) ask if I applied for external funding, specifically the NSF. Thinking that I was not qualified, or worse yet, that I would devote all this time to apply and therefore put myself in the position of possibly failing, I didn’t bother. It was not until last fall when I was reading advice on how to write a successful NSF application, did one of my professors (once again, female), ask me what I was reading, and then inquire why I wasn’t applying for the NSF. It is absurd that I talked myself out of applying so many times. It was the encouragement from my female professors and colleagues that drove me to apply for the grant last fall. It took someone explicitly telling me that yes, I am qualified, and even if I weren’t, I should apply anyway.

Regardless of the outcome, I think having the courage to apply for these grants is a personal success. Unfortunately, women are less likely to apply to major grants.  While the social sciences have noted that women are beginning to be more fairly funded in the social sciences (specifically in the UK), there are still issues in gender balance of how many women apply for grants, and the percentage of them who receive them. Similarly, in the job market, Saujani notes that men are likely to apply for jobs when they meet approximately 60% of the requirements, while females only apply when they meet 100% of the requires. With these discouraging numbers, it’s no wonder that women think we cannot apply for grants because we don’t have enough publications, experience, or simply don’t want to risk failure. We need to change the perception of perfection: socializing women to think they are only valuable if they are perfect hinders us more than it helps us.

So in order to remedy this whole socialization of perfection, I think we, female academics, need to socialize our colleagues and peers in the process of being brave. Those of us who spend our field seasons working in deserts, rainforests, and mountains littered with poisonous snakes, bugs, plants, basically all manner of creatures that could harm us, may disagree: to do these things does require bravery. What I am talking about is having the bravery to take risks in our careers. We need ignore that pesky and unproductive manta, “I may fail at this, if I do, I’m not perfect,” and instead replace it with, “I may fail at this, but oh well, I was brave for trying.” To achieve this, it will take a concentrated effort for all of us, fellow female peers and colleagues, not to mention male peers and colleagues, to encourage bravery, and show that perfection is overrated.

On a final note, public outreach is an invaluable tool academics can use to encourage the next generation of women to be brave, so show how perfection is harmful. This past weekend, in collaboration with GiST (Girls in STEM at Tulane), I hosted a workshop that taught middle school girls about human osteology, bioarchaeology, and forensic anthropology. I made sure to tell the girls to ask questions, and share their ideas–there were no stupid questions and ideas in my lab. Whenever I asked a question (why do you think female pelves are different from male pelves? When do you remember when you got your first adult molar? ), the girls were not afraid to call out answers, nor were they afraid to answer my questions incorrectly. In fact, they loved sharing their ideas. In other words, they were brave, and did not care about giving the perfect answer. Hopefully this is a trend that continues.

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This week in anthropology

Map of Native American tribes you have never seen before 

Mayan cities rediscovered in the Yucatan 

Subway in the sky, new cable car system to link La Paz with El Alto on the plateau 

Peruvian artisans win cash award for weaving in textile contest 

Lessons from the last time civilization collapsed 

“Consider this, if you would: a network of far-flung, powerful, high-tech civilizations closely tied by trade   and diplomatic embassies; an accelerating threat of climate change and its pressure on food production; a rising wave of displaced populations ready to sweep across and overwhelm developed nations. Sound familiar?”

Archaeologists uncover first mass grave from 14th century bubonic plague outbreak, Barcelona

 

What makes humans special? A graphical tour of  our evolutionary advantages starts with anatomy 

The problem when sexism sounds friendly (in academia) 

Are Neanderthals human? Scientist discuss whether or not Neanderthals belong with homo sapiens 

Pre-Columbian mycobacterial genomes reveal seals as a source of New World human tuberculosis

Irish fair skin can be traced back to the Middle East and India 

European man’s remains found in ancient Chinese tomb

Homo floresiensis: scientists clash over claims ‘hobbit man’ was modern human with Down’s syndrome

Meet The Generation Of Incredible Native American Women Fighting To Preserve Their Culture

World’s first 3D printed vertebra implanted in 12-year-old boy

Four Cases of Life-Threatening Plague Found in Colorado

 

 

 

 

 

This week in anthropology, archaeology, bioarchaeology, and bioanthropology

Rare crusade era seal found in Jerusalem 

Chile: Students find 7,000 year old Chinchurro mummy 

Enhanced images reveals paintings at Angkor Wat 

Long lost mummy of Pharaoh AmenotephII’s foster brother found in monastery near Pisa, Italy 

Grave find may be Western Europe’s earliest human tooth 

Court rules on final resting place for Richard III’s, London

First contact with European’s through indigenous eyes

Hidden Wari tomb reveals a treasure trove of undisturbed remains, Peru 

Villager dips fishing net in river and caught Bronze Age/4,000 year old pagan god, Turkey 

Climate change doomed the ancients 

What can you do with a humanities Ph.D.? 

Is species extinction happening 1000 times faster because of humans? 

Access to environmental education must be part of a positive future for Virgunga, its communities and wildlife 

3D model of Richard III’s spine reveals spiral scoliosis 

8 extreme body modifications from around the world 

East Lothian skeleton may be 10th century Irish Viking king 

Man’s hormonal condition was “eating” his finger bones 

Iran’s old “dwarf city” captivates visitors 

Whatever happened to the great apes of Europe? Went extinct around 7 million years ago 

This week in anthropology, bio anthropology, primatology, and bioarchaeology

The scourge of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and the demise of Europe’s first settlement in the Western Hemisphere

Mummy of Egypt’s “lost queen” Queen Hatshepsut found, osteological shows died of bone cancer around age 50 

Sharon DeWitte of University of South Carolina, using dental and skeletal evidence to look at populations before, during, and after Black Death swept Europe 

Mexican archaeologist excavate 1600 year old shaft tomb in State of Zacatecas, material evidence suggests the 28 individuals armed for battle in death

Neanderthal moms had it tougher than modern moms, Neanderthal and homo sapien infants had same cranial size at birth, and Neanderthal children grew at faster rates 

Getting to the root of enamel evolution: Connecting genes to hominin teeth shows evidence of natural selection 

Is ignorance bliss? The frustrations of being scientifically literate 

Byran college loosing 25% of faculty after “Adam and Eve” controversy 

Genes made us do it: the new pseudoscience of racial differences see also a great follow up Things to know when talking about race and genetics

Primates and patience: the evolutionary roots of self-control 

Chronicle of higher ed: struggling to find a project that excites you? follow these steps 

Function of human appendix, known use since lost?

Power and glory of the Maya queens, stele at Naachtun depicts fierce-looking, possible warrior, queen

Girl’s 12,000 year old skeleton found in underwater cave may shed light on Native American origins 

Should human remains be put on display? Archaeology and grave robbing 

Five ways twitter can be useful in academic contexts 

In Victorian ear, doctors prescribed beards to keep men healthy 

Restorers to bone up on skills for Kutná Hora ossuary makeover, Prague 

Bone to be wild, fleshing out a career devoted to skeletons and people, tribute to paleopathologist Dr. George Armelagos

Qatari people carry genetic trace of early migrants out of Africa  

Testing on Egyptian coffin’s wood reveals climate change may have caused empire’s fall 

Mountain Gorilla, Cross River Gorilla, and Sumatran Orangutan listed as some of the world’s most endangered animals 

Ancient faeces reveals origins of Puerto Rican natives 

Graphic of Wari woman’s royal tomb reveals burial fit for a queen, Peru 

Federal government jeopardizes Navajo’s family ties to home lands

Is your baby American enough Complicated relationship between genetics and nationality