My discipline, cultural anthropology, has one foot in the sciences and one in the humanities. My philosophy of teaching has always been to help students understand that they don’t have to choose between science and humanism. We need science, lots and lots of it, to help expose false ideologies, like racism. And we need humanism, lots and lots of it, to provide guidance on what people across different cultures and times see is important in life. I teach my graduate students to prepare themselves as scientists and as humanists in order to do the best science they can, and I teach them that good science requires preparation as much in method as in theory.
Cultural anthropology is heavy on theory, light on method. This always struck me as peculiar, since anthropology is generally so uncompromisingly empirical: The whole discipline is based on fieldwork – all four fields, including archeology, biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural anthropology – often with people whose language and culture is very, very different from our own. Yet, there has always been a mystique about fieldwork, with little if any training available in methods in graduate programs around the country. The mystique is partly swagger, since fieldwork is physically demanding and often dangerous, but it’s also partly healthy skepticism. One wants, after all to allow cultural differences to emerge as data, in the context of living with people.
My view is that cultural differences are exactly what we want to record faithfully. I am dedicated to teaching students about research design and about the systematic methods available for collecting and analyzing field data. (Over the years, my course on research design has enrolled students from nursing, education, wildlife biology, and other disciplines, in addition to students in anthropology. Students benefit from seeing that the problems of research design are common across disciplines.) I’ve also written a textbook on methods and I’ve helped develop training courses in methods for the National Science Foundation.
I have, then, devoted part of my career to helping students acquire the skills they need for collecting and analyzing credible data about human thought and human behavior under conditions of fieldwork.
I have devoted another part to teaching general anthropology – the panoramic, biological, cultural, historical, and linguistic study of humankind – to undergraduates. I see the introductory course in anthropology as an essential part of a liberal arts education. Teaching this course is an opportunity for me to show students both how culturally diverse the world really is and that differences in things like ideal family size or ideal body shape are neither random nor immutable. Preparing this course every year keeps me current with developments across the whole field.
After 55 years of teaching both graduates and undergraduates, I’m still learning from them. Their enthusiasm for learning continually challenges me to offer my best.