Teaching Anthropology in a Red State

Scholars talk strategy, setbacks on teaching in a field that often aligns with progressive policy goals.

December 1, 2017

WASHINGTON -- Does the study of anthropology inherently run counter to conservative values?

In the age of Trump, many in academe are re-evaluating how their professions and livelihoods are perceived by an electorate that rejected the establishment. Additionally, Republicans of all stripes -- establishment or otherwise -- seem to have soured on higher education, with 58 percent of them reporting that they think colleges have a negative impact on the country’s direction.

Five-person panel at the American Anthropological Association meetingAnthropology -- especially its various specializations, which look at the intersection of evolution, race, sex, gender, colonialism, public land use, capitalism and climate change on different world cultures -- seems ripe for the picking if conservatives had to select a specific area of study to bash. And given how commonly it’s offered as a general-education option at various universities, how well it does or doesn’t mesh with conservative students -- and long-held conservative beliefs that predate Trump or the Republican Party, such as creationism -- is something that anthropologists are paying attention to.

“I’ve gotten on one of my [course] evaluations that I’m not a scientist,” said Kimberly Kasper, an assistant professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. Casper was speaking on a panel addressing teaching anthropology in conservative states and environments at the American Anthropological Association’s annual national meeting, held in D.C. this week.

“[Teaching about] gender roles has definitely been an issue, especially for military spouses,” said Virginia Hutton Estabrook, an assistant professor of anthropology at Armstrong State University in Savannah, Ga., who was also on the panel. Cultural anthropology has been at the forefront of researching gender roles and how they vary across cultures, and Estabrook mentioned military spouses as typically strongly oriented around traditional American gender roles when she teaches theories that may run counter to their views.

The session was less an airing of grievances than a session to talk strategies to bring conservative colleagues and students on board with anthropology and the various avenues it explores. Scholars discussed the discipline's relevance in race, sex, gender and evolution, specifically, and challenges and triumphs they’ve had teaching, especially in states across the South and the Midwest. Many described positive, if not exactly fruitful, relationships with students who opted for creationism over evolution.

“Alabama is the only state in the U.S. that still has warning stickers on its [high school] biology textbooks [saying] that evolution is just a theory,” Briana Pobiner, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, told the audience. “The cultural context in which [anthropologists] are teaching is not very friendly.”

Still, both the panel members gathered to address teaching anthropology in red states and other conference attendees acknowledged that breaking down the discourse on higher education into liberal versus conservative, or Republican versus Democrat, doesn’t always answer every problem facing anthropology’s role in academe.

A panel held Thursday morning addressed the “neoliberalization” of campuses not only in the U.S. but across the world. Bipartisan pushes for privatization measures on campuses, corporate influence on research and the pitching of higher education by policy makers as a practical means to better employment or boosting the national economy, critics said, puts programs like anthropology at risk and obscures the purpose of education in the first place.

“They’re trying to pick the winners,” Cris Shore, an anthropology professor at the University of Auckland, said of policies in New Zealand and elsewhere, prioritizing STEM education.

While some attributed recent trends to the increased political clout of populism, they also pointed to mainstream policy makers cutting back on education funding as a threat to anthropology and the humanities. Janine Wedel, an anthropologist at George Mason University, acknowledged populism’s dangers, but also contended that the same elites whom populists campaign against have also brought damage to academe.

Touching on themes that would be brought up in the afternoon session on teaching in red states, she said that anthropologists have to engage in fieldwork domestically. Part of the reason the election polls predicting the outcomes for Brexit and the 2016 presidential election were so off, she said, was because anthropologists and others were ignoring their own countries.

“As long as we sit in our anthropological caves … we’re doomed,” she said. “If you don’t know anybody who voted for Trump [or Brexit], you shouldn’t be part of the conversation.”

The entire conference wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as Marc Kissel, a lecturer in Appalachian State University’s anthropology department, tried to make clear. Building on other professors’ insistence that it was important to find a way to let religious students know that learning anthropology didn’t have to mean having one’s faith attacked, he said there was room for both religious conservatives and anthropologists -- plenty of whom, panelists pointed out, are religious themselves -- to learn from one another.

“My postdoc was sponsored by anthropology and theology, and I spent a lot of time working with theologians,” said Kissel, who did postdoctoral research at the University of Notre Dame. “The upshot is that I learned that theologians are not creationists, and they learned that anthropologists are not Richard Dawkins.”

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Nick Roll

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