Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fieldwork in the Cloud: Training in Ethnographic Fieldwork with Global Technologies

(Note: The Prezi associated with this blog entry is from a collaborative brown bag lecture given by Barbara G. Hoffman, Ph.D. and me at Cleveland State University on October 24, 2013. The essay below is an adaptation of my part of the lecture and as such, it does not reflect the opinions of Dr. Hoffman or Cleveland State University.)

There is – indeed, there has been – a movement afoot in higher education to utilize emerging technologies in order to augment our ultimate goals. For me, this ultimate goal is to contribute to educating an informed electorate. The objectives that lead to that point include making knowledge available and accessible. In the pursuit of the goal, we have witnessed this movement take many forms:
  • Educators use Twitter to engage their students about their subjects while academics and professionals use Twitter to live-tweet conferences and lectures.
  • Instructors are employing stylish presentation software with which to present their lessons, not only in the classroom, but over the internet as well.
  • Researchers are publishing in open-access journals, some publishers are beginning to meet that demand by considering new models, and still more open-access online journals are starting up.
  • Prestigious universities are offering massive online open courses (MOOCs) for free, in which anyone can take part.
  • Within my own field, mobile apps and social media are being used to deliver live fieldnotes to both colleagues and the lay public alike.
This past summer, my advisor and I began to develop our own contribution to this pedagogical shift with cloud-based fieldwork training. Rather than going into the field alone with little training, and unable to enroll in a cultural anthropology field school, I chose to return to the community where I had studied abroad last summer – Dakar, Senegal – to conduct ethnographic fieldwork under the mentorship of my advisor in Cleveland, using the cloud as a point of exchange ideas and advice.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Adventures in Applying to Graduate School

The time has finally come. I have been anticipating this moment for four years, and now that it is upon me, I am both riddled with anxiety and beaming with excitement. It’s time to apply to graduate programs to begin in the 2014-2015 school year, and I think I’d like to document this experience. One of my most viewed blog articles is a guest article by a close friend of mine who wanted to share his account of the journey to grad school. To atone for my complicity in sharing his vulgar, though admittedly popular narrative, I’ve decided to share some bullet points on my own experience. It is my hope that this can be helpful for those of you that are preparing to apply to graduate school in the near future, or that this might elicit some response from those of you who have experience with this process.

I am applying to seven programs, one of which is a dual MPH/PHD program, and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, for a total of nine applications. Three applications are already open (which I have started), but the rest will open in early to mid-September. To satiate my organizational needs, I’ve constructed an Excel file that lists each requirement, fee, deadline, and special notes for each application, though many of the finer details, I’ve discovered, are not available until one actually begins the process.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Gecko (Dakar 2013)

My host has been keeping me out all hours of the night. The other morning, about 3AM, we quietly walk in to the house, up the stairs, and down the hallway. I’m leading through the dark with the light of my cellphone, and flip the switch to turn on the light in the hall. I turn to my bedroom door and unlock it, but I notice that at the other end of the hallway, my host is frozen in his tracks. I whisper, “What’s up?” and he motions to the ceiling where I see a small gecko, perhaps 4 inches max.

Ah, cool! I think; I see lizards everywhere, but they’re always running and I can never get a picture. I duck into the bedroom for my camera, pop off a few shots, and then motion to my host, “I’m done, come on.” Then I realize, this big brawny former-goalkeeper of a man is petrified, and I don’t know why. The guy who laughed as I firmly gripped the back of his motorcycle through the streets of Dakar is now afraid to walk past this gecko. “Is it…dangerous?” I ask. “Yep,” he nods. “Does it…jump?” I ask, confused about how it could be a threat from the ceiling. “Yep,” he repeats. Okay, I need more information. “Is it poisonous? Is it lethal?” “No it’s not lethal,” but before he can finish his thought he dives into my bedroom for shelter. The gecko scurries across the ceiling, and startles my host. “Okay, what does it do?” I ask, snapping photos and getting a little too close to the gecko for my host’s comfort.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dear Obama: A Short Guide to Dakar

Dear Mr. President,

I hear you’re coming to town at the end of the month, and I understand that it will be your first trip to Dakar, “The Gateway to Africa.” I’d just like to suggest some things that might make your stay a little easier.

1. Eat some ceeb u jen at least once. It’s great food, but it gets a little old rather quick, but I should warn you: eat small bites slowly because there are a lot of bones. Bonus points if you do it like the Senegalese: Sit with your family on the floor, eating from a single large plate with your hands.

2. Drink ataaya. It’s Chinese tea, mint, and sugar, but it’s some of the best stuff in the world. The trick is, you have to find someone that you can sit with while they make it, because it really is better with friends. Where I live, we have the tea every night, making the tea in a kettle over a portable gas burner. Three glasses is the standard serving amount, and sometimes it can take 30 minutes or more to prepare the tea between those glasses! But that’s okay, because it’s not actually about the tea; it’s about the circle of friends.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

"T'as peur?" (Dakar 2013)

The time I was on a motorcycle, I was maybe 13 and I dropped it. When I was a kid, my dad took a spill on his motorcycle and never looked back. So when my Senegalese friend wanted to take me on a ride through the streets of Dakar to see the celebrations of Balla Gaye's victory, I was torn. "T'as peur  (You scared)?" he asked. "Non, je n'ai pas peur (Nah, I'm not scared)," I said against my better judgement. My hands have never sweat so much. Despite the fact that it was probably one of the dumbest things I've ever done (i.e. riding on the back of a motorcycle through Dakar with few or no street lamps, no helmet, and a borrowed Nikon), it was absolutely amazing. At the end of the night, I turned to my friend and said, "C'etait formidable, hain? Mais plus jamais ca (That was great! But never again)."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Gendered Health, Reproduction, and Biosociality: An Exploration of Senegalese Men's Health-Related Schemata and Praxis

Last summer, I fell in love with Senegal while studying French in Dakar and using that opportunity to research traditional medicine. At the end of this week, I am returning to Dakar for five weeks of ethnographic research into men’s reproductive health, behavior, and decision-making. Many of my questions are related to how the construction of gender overlays healthcare and reproduction. I also have a philosophical interest in parsing out the influences of Islamic, ethnic (Wolof, Serer, etc.), and French epistemologies and ontologies.

Like last summer, I intend to blog about my research while I’m there, except this time with more photos and probably some video too – stay tuned.

This would not be possible without the incredibly generous support from following people (in a semi-particular order):

Willow Rosen
Dr. Barbara Hoffman
Dr. Mamadou Seck; Abib and Malick Seck
Dr. Deirdre Mageean
Dr. Rosemary Sutton
Rick Jr. and Sue Powis
Dr. Maggie Jackson and the Department of Anthropology
David Rosen
Richard Sr. and Mary Jo Powis
Thadd and Lisa Evans
Joseph and Mary Wargo
Mary Lou Johnstone
Brian Johnstone and Carleen Almasy
Jeff Johnstone
Rev. Walt and Charlene Powis
Faith Jones
Marietta Smrdel and Cynthia L. Werle
Sue Fout
Lois Bryan
Chris Kraska, Natalia Buchwald, and Sydney Stark

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Mansplaining: A Proposal to Study the Power, Knowledge, and Miscommunication of Intergender Speech

This semester, I am finishing up an anthropology class in "Language and Gender." The class is focused on a hit parade of scholarly literature, starting with Robin Lakoff's 1975 "Language and Woman's Place" and following the development of the field through to more recent inquiries, like Elise Kramer's 2011 paper on internet rape jokes. As an undergraduate student steeped in the academic Twitterverse and Blogosphere, I feel like I might have a lot of exposure to the criticisms and questions that are raised - as they are raised - about conflicts between the genders.

For example, maybe you noticed a little over a week ago that Kate Clancy, Katie Hinde, Robin Nelson, and Julienne Rutherford made waves capsized the damn boat with their survey, analysis, and subsequent presentation of sexual harassment in environments of anthropological fieldwork. (The study is ongoing, and now includes all manner of scientific fieldwork.)

Perhaps you remember the silly editorial in Nature about "Womanspace" when Ed Rybicki suggested, as one commenter put it, "the uterus is a tracking device."

Or, if anyone is the least bit familiar with the goings-on of the online atheist community (most notably the so-called "Elevatorgate" debacle between Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins [and the disgusting amount of abuse she has taken since then]), you have an idea of what I'm talking about.

And then there's mansplaining. Lakoff, Zimmerman, West, Maltz, Borker, O'Barr, Tannen - all of the sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists that we've studied this semester have come SO CLOSE to describing our current conception of mansplaining, and yet no one hit the mark  - not until Rebecca Solnit's incredibly popular L.A. Times opinion piece, "Men who explain things." Why? I have no idea, and frankly I was kind of shocked. So, I did my final presentation on it, and here it is (after the jump).

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

“We are all Bostonians”: Thoughts on Appropriating Empathy

Yesterday, the nation was shocked by the tragic events of the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Two bombs were detonated near the finish line, apparently timed to injure the greatest amount of people. Naturally, social networks are aflutter with condolences, support, conspiracy theories, admonishments, and clicktavism. Between things like Patton Oswalt's uplifting note on the goodness of humanity, and the immediate dissemination of services like Google Person Finder to locate loved ones, I have to say: We have come pretty far since 9/11, and I'm rather proud of that fact.

I want to comment, though, on the adversarial nature of some social media users. I have observed two types: those that shut down conspiracy theorists in their tracks and those that cry out for equal empathy for foreign tragedies. The former gives me joy. It is a sign that more and more people are finally getting tired of Alex Jones and Mike Adams. It is a sign (though singular and weak), that we might be heading toward a more rational (or at least reasonable) social consciousness. The latter, on the other hand, I cannot abide.

It is true: Many people die in bombings outside of the United States on a regular basis. It is terrible and tragic, and I blame centuries of colonialism and empire-building for their loss. There are entire populations that live in fear that any day could be their last; we absolutely take our safety for granted. And it is true: Many Americans are not globally aware of the goings-on in such communities. Even if they do catch the title of an article in the back pages of the newspaper or on the margin of a news website, they will not think that it’s “news.” I agree that these are lamentable realities, and I too wish that Americans had the same kind of empathy for the humans who face the threat of this kind of violence every day.

However, that said, this will never happen. Ever. The bombing in Boston targeted Americans  (and non-Americans) gathered to participate in an event of (global) camaraderie in one of America’s oldest cities. We identify with the victims and their families in ways that we will never identify with those that live in daily fear. We hold many of the same values, share the same beliefs and language, and are governed by the same laws. It could have been any one of us; an indiscriminate attack on those people as a means to attack an idea is thus an attack on anyone else who identifies with that idea. I am absolutely not the most patriotic person I know – in fact, I find patriotism quite silly – but bombs don’t care what you or I believe. As they say, “It’s the thought that counts.”

Furthermore, when someone suggests that there is a global injustice when Americans don’t react to foreign bombings the same way, what you are really saying is: “My daily knowledge of global affairs is superior to your ability to grieve in the here and now.” Get over yourself. We can have empathy for the victims of violence - political, structural, or even natural - but we don’t have to be insensitive about it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies: A Review

Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You:
Busting Myths About Human Nature
Agustín Fuentes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 274 pp

For many years, influential scientists have been stepping outside of academia to remind the public that they do not need college degrees to effectively scrutinize the myths, legends, dogmas, and conspiracy theories perpetuated by pop culture. Published in 1981, Mismeasure of Man, by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, showed us how a popular misconception about the relationship between race and intelligence was made worse by scientists with a priori knowledge and a defective version of the scientific method. In 1995, astrophysicist Carl Sagan published The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark in which he gives readers the “Baloney Detection Kit,” – now famous in secular humanist communities – and uses it to dismantle claims about UFOs and alien abductions. In 2011, biologist Richard Dawkins published The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, an incredible book for the public that explains how mythological cosmologies are supplanted over time by advances in scientific knowledge. Recently, in this spirit of setting the record straight, Agustín Fuentes has made an anthropological contribution with Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature. And who better to discuss the life-cycle of a myth than an anthropologist?

In Race, Monogamy, and other Lies, Fuentes takes on what he considers to be the three major myths about humans: biological race, human aggression, and that men and women are wired differently. The first matter of Fuentes’ deconstruction revolves around his rejection of the “nature-nurture” dichotomy. Fuentes supposes that humanity is, as he coins, “naturenurtural”; a familiar concept that describes the biological and cultural influences on humanity as inseparable – and the very reason that myths about human nature are myriad. After a short introduction to basic cultural and biological concepts, Fuentes begins breaking down all manners of myths that surround the concept of race, followed by a chapter that challenges the idea that culture tames our innate beast, and finishes the myth-busting by eloquently untangling sex from gender, pair bonding from monogamy, and sexuality from sexual behavior. 

Each chapter begins by introducing a set of myths surrounding a particular topic, and then proceeds by meticulously breaking each one apart by uncovering the origins of the myth, discussing studies, statistics, and misrepresentations of the truth, and in the end, why the mythological construction still has value. In the chapter titled, “Myths About Sex,” for instance, Fuentes lists as a prevailing assumption that men and women are biologically different. Using examples from genetics, endocrinology, embryology, and neuroscience, he explains that while there is sexual dimorphism, we are composed of the same biological components. The sexual differential of size, for example, may be evolutionary, but biologically-speaking it means little, and it follows that we need not assume that evolution “intended” for men to use their size for sexual coercion. Fuentes closes suggesting that the myth may be wrong, but it can be used to illustrate meaningful differences between the concepts of sex and gender.

Departing from the classic conception of myth – a story that explains natural phenomena, usually in supernatural terms – Fuentes defines myths simply as a set of assumptions that we might rely upon to interpret the quotidian. The danger of myths, he warns, is the caveat: they allow us to live our lives with little need for critical inquiry, so much so that we might consider some myths to be “common sense.” Not only are myths an interpretation of the everyday, but the everyday is commonplace because it goes unquestioned. Unfortunately, Fuentes leaves the origins of myths aside, other than to say that they arise as assumptions. Myth is the epistemological placeholder – it supposes an attractive model of meaning until it can be deconstructed, if not replaced entirely by a better looking model.

Fuentes has little to say about how myths are used as a form of power except when, at the end, he begins using the word “lie” which he defines as a “deliberate intent to deceive.” These lies manifest when, as he says, scientific literature becomes enamored with the pursuit of “significant results”, at which point they are exploited by those with something to gain – politicians and advertisers. Myths are easily constructed and arduously toppled because of those that control discourse – how many anthropologists must scream at the tops of their lungs to be heard over the Governor of Florida? – but Fuentes only glosses over this fact. If it is sociopolitical and historical context that you want, you should refer to this book’s predecessors listed above (in addition to Jonathan Marks’ Why I Am Not a Scientist: Anthropology and Modern Knowledge).

Overall, the book is written with undergraduates and laypeople in mind. Fuentes never seems to suggest whether or not he believes the myths he explores are universal, but one might assume from the many pop-culture references that he is referring to the Western audience to whom he is speaking. Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies lays out a crash course in anthropological thought, genetics, animal behavior, psychology, gender studies, and more. While he is careful to avoid jargon unless it is absolutely necessary, Fuentes is also sure to define that which he does use. Terms and concepts are thoroughly spelled out, but he does not undermine the reader’s intellect either – many of the myths are complicated constructions of entangled values and beliefs, but Fuentes leads the way, confident that his readers are in lockstep behind him.

What I really commend is Fuentes’ refusal to solely lay the burden of mythmaking in the hands of culture. Asserting that race, aggression, and sexual behavior are not hard-wired evolutionary traits is easy, as far as he is concerned; negotiating the incongruence between observed patterns and cultural assumptions is what makes the book tick. What sets this book apart from the debunkers of the past is that Fuentes masterfully maintains that myth need not be cast to the side; rather it should be reshaped into something of worth. There is value in acknowledging and discussing that, for instance, while it may be a myth that human races exist because of biology, it is not a myth that human races exist as a concept and, as a result, it affects human populations.

The book accurately sums up many of the foundation-shaking lessons of a contemporary undergraduate education in anthropology, and I think it would be valuable as required reading for lower-division anthropology students. I highly recommend this book for all levels of science and humanities students for its value in planting the seeds and fostering the growth of critical analysis. The development of those skills provides the basis for a lifetime of lie-detection and myth-busting; Fuentes should be lauded for this important contribution toward that end.

Dawkins, Richard, and Dave McKean

Gould, Stephen Jay
  1996 The mismeasure of man. New York: Norton.

Marks, Jonathan
  2009 Why I am not a scientist: anthropology and modern knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sagan, Carl

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Health For All...Eventually

Here, I present my first infographic. I think it speaks for itself. What do you think? (Click here for the full size.)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Call for Nominations - Society for Medical Anthropology Executive Board

Copied from the SMA Blog:

The Society for Medical Anthropology (SMA) is calling for nominations to fill the following positions on the SMA Executive Board:
  • Secretary (3-year term; 2013-2016)
  • Member at large (2 positions open) (3 year term; 2013-2016)
  • Student Representative (3 year term 2013-2016)
Nominees must be members of SMA. Terms begin at the SMA Board meeting at the American Anthropological Association meetings in November 2013.

To nominate someone (self nominations are welcome) please submit the following information electronically:
  • A statement from the nominator explaining why he/she chose to nominate this person
  • A CV for the nominee
  • Confirmation that the proposed nominee has agreed to stand for election if nominated by the nomination committee.
Nominations may be submitted to the chair of the Nominations Committee:

Diane Weiner, Masters Program in Medical Anthropology & Cross-Cultural Practice, Boston University, diane.weiner@bmc.org

These submissions should be submitted no later than January 28, 2013. For questions regarding the nominations procedures please contact Diane Weiner at diane.weiner@bmc.org.