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Anthropology Students Show their Creativity (and courage)

Posted by Ethnographer | Ecographer on March 28, 2012

Set Them Free, They’ll Grow Wings

I occasionally teach a course at the University of Alberta. It’s called Anthropology 207: Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. The class is intended to give students who are majoring or minoring in anthropology an introduction to the foundational ethnographers and ethnographies of our discipline, the lessons we’ve learned about human society and culture, and a sense of what it is that motivates ethnographers, what it is we actually do.

The usual syntax for a single term course is to assign readings, usually from a text book and an ethnography, provide lectures and tutorials based on the themes in those readings, and evaluate the students’ acquisition of information and synthesis of knowledge with some sort of mid-term test, an assignment based on independent research with library materials, and a final exam. Sometimes the structure of the process can be counter to the intent. The excitement and verve of anthropological insights can get lost in mundane and logistical hoops of tests, essays, lectures etc. So I’m always looking to ways to make Introduction to Cultural Anthropology more interesting.

This term (Winter 2012), I assigned David Graeber‘s Direct Action; An Ethnography, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen‘s Small Places, Large Issues. I chose Eriksen because he provides a readable, yet intellectual, cosmopolitan (and non-nation-centric) perspective on cultural anthropology, because he very neatly encapsulates the iconic ethnographies and the historical issues that we anthropologists want our future colleagues to know about, and because Eriksen has a perspective on anthropology that matches my own: the idea that anthropologists should be relevant for the present, that in our study of the human condition, we should be paying attention to the social faultlines of inequity and disparity, and be alert to re-imaginings of the human condition. In other words, social and cultural anthropology should be a public discourse of the present. I chose Graeber because his book represents something unique for Canadian anthropology students: an ethnography about youth protests, and a particular protest that took place in Canada. It’s tailor-made for talking about contemporary issues of social justice, social organization and governance, gender, creativity, the relationship of the individual to the state, globalization and corporatization, freedom of speech and media, nationalism and Canadian vs USAian culture… many of the issues that are fundamental to contemporary life . The fact that Graeber was part of the planning for the stupendously, surprisingly, successful Occupy Wall Street protest of 2011, and that his ethnography was about the planning and execution of a precursor protest at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, was an added bonus in the ‘contemporary relevance’ tickbox.

Within the usual structure of a term course, the most enjoyable part of the pedagogical design process is coming up with ways to get students engaged, to let their natural creativity be harnessed to the task at hand: learning about cultural anthropology. So far, Alberto Gomes, at La Trobe University, has my vote for the best first class in cultural anthropology. The worst things a university professor has to think about fall within the realm of ‘policing’. Academic dishonesty, mostly plagiarism and cheating on tests, are the things that drive us crazy, and that suck inordinate amounts of time from what would otherwise be a pleasurable occupation: sharing interesting ideas and perspectives with bright young minds. Plagiarism is something the University of Alberta takes fairly seriously — though how successfully, I can’t say. Academic dishonesty is so rampant that it supports an industry of people who create essays for purchase, people who market them, people who create software to document plagiarism, people who sell that software, and people who create and administer policies designed to deal with student plagiarism. When Pulitzer Prize-winning authors like Jared Diamond and Deans of Medical Schools like Philip Baker get caught plagiarizing, being the thankless plagiarism-cop in an undergraduate anthropology class can feel like a war already lost (but an important battle nonetheless).

Part of my solution to the Pushme-Pullyou of student nurturing and policing is to design evaluation projects that are less likely to put students in the zone of temptation. To reduce the potential for students to ‘recycle’ papers, to get them enthused about the contemporary relevance of what they are researching, AND to get them to think outside of the box, so excited that they won’t want to cheat, I often ask the students to focus on a particular, timely, theme. In previous years my students have done their major assignments on trash, or on public spectacles like the Olympics and music concerts. I also encourage my students to show me the product of their research in a creative way – they can write an essay if they wish, but they can also create a video, use social media, produce a graphic novel or an epistolary. Making something publically visible is great incentive not to plagiarize.

This year, given the massive numbers of people involved in the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring, and given the fact that their assigned ethnography charts people who are part of a social movement questioning the corporatism of society and our political system, the Anthropology 207 student projects were focused on social movements (there is even a journal dedicated to social movement studies – I must be on to something).The students could write on any social movement, anywhere, even in any time period, so long as it was relevant to the present. The criteria were to use at least 10 scholarly resources in their research and to provide an anthropological analysis of that particular social movement. This could include considering how that movement was an aspect and reflection of the society and culture of its participants, how cultural symbols and aesthetics were evidenced in the activities, tactics and/or motivations of the participants, and/or what the strategies, forms of protest, etc. showed us about that society and culture. Students were provided with very clear marking rubrics that demonstrated my expectations of their paper, social or visual media, and were required to submit an outline in advance, so that I could steer them right if the topic choice was unwise.

The topics students picked ranged widely, from the Zapatistas to Apartheid, and tell us a lot about what today’s youth are thinking about. Gender, hacktivism, and animal-rights figured frequently. The Occupy Movement, surprisingly, was not well-covered. Nor was the Arab Spring, the Burmese Democracy Movement or the variety of other political activisms currently preoccupying our news. Perhaps this reflects the academic resources available more than a lack of interest in politics. The results are not perfect. Nobody followed all of the parameters in the rubrics, for example, and some of the projects look more like journalism than anthropological analysis. But hey, these are not professional anthropologists, these are undergraduate students. What they’ve produced is impressive.

I asked the students to be creative, to have fun, to learn something new and to put what they learned in Anthropology 207 ‘out there’ for the world to see. In a class of 75 students, 30 produced either a blog or a video. That’s over 1/3 who chose to step out of their comfort zone and grow wings. Many had never blogged before, let alone made a video with interviews, sets, props and graphics! I’m so proud of the courage the students have shown. I’m also thrilled with the way the bar has been raised in terms of quality and initiative, and that some students are saying they’re going to keep on blogging about their chosen subject, even after the end of term. Next year’s class has some great inspiration upon which to build!

See for yourself:


“Free Tibet”
“New Atheists Movement”
“Tea Party Movement”
“The Black Panther Movement”
“Anonymous: Internet Liberation Army,”


The Asexuality Movement

The Anti-Fur Movement

South African Anti-Apartheid Movement



Pro-Life Movement

Haida Lyell Island Blockade

Aboriginal Women’s Movement

The Occupy Movement

Anti-Gay Movement

Fair Trade Movement

The Zapatistas

LGBT Movement

The SlutWalk

Anti-Nuclear Movement

Jonathon Nyau: European Anti-Nuclear Movement

Fair-Trade (Coffee)

LGBT Rights

Native Sovreignty Movement

Animal Liberation Movement

Women’s Rights Movement

LGBT Movement

Anti-Nuclear Movement (Japan):

Movement to Decriminalize Marijuanna

Gay & Lesbian Social Movement

Posted in Ethnography, plagiarism, Social Justice, teaching | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on Anthropology Students Show their Creativity (and courage)

Make the Dangerous Choice to Dissent – Umair Haque – Harvard Business Review

Posted by Ethnographer | Ecographer on October 16, 2011

This is my first ‘re-blogging’. While I may retweet, I generally prefer to speak my own words.  But Umair Haque has captured my sentiments so well that I have to share him.  Haque blogs for the Harvard Business Review. Indeed. HBR. I admit, my presumptions about HBR were that it would be ultra-conservative. So the pleasing experiences that come from reading Umair Haque’s opinions are augmented by the surprise factor that I’m  reading them in the HBR.  I guess the adage about not judging books by their covers still applies. What applies even more is Haque’s message, one that resonates neatly with the Occupy Wall (Bay, etc) Street anti-inequity campaign currently sweeping North America.

Karl Marx didn’t quite see culturejammers Adbusters coming –he thought the revolution would come from the proletariat rather than artists — but he did predict that ‘the people’ would eventually reject the monopolization of their lives by a work-dominated system that demeans the workers and rewards those who exploit them politically, economically and in terms of cultural capital. And that’s what’s driving the current protests: what they refer to as corporatized and monied corruption of democracy.

Industrial revolution era Marx and his notion that the ultimate society was one without class-based inequities has clearly influenced our current post-modernism era Adbusters (Walter Benjamin too); perhaps they also influence Haque? Certainly Haque and Adbusters’  both are crystallizing what a lot of us are feeling: We’re fed-up with the current system of success for the few and inequity for the majority. We want more than to simply qualify for a mortgage. We want a life that is rewarding beyond the paper handcuffs of a pay cheque. Umair Haque says go for it.  Simply.

Make the Dangerous Choice to Dissent – Umair Haque – Harvard Business Review.

Posted in Social Justice | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

An Activist Toolkit Wiki For Canadians

Posted by Ethnographer | Ecographer on September 18, 2011, the Canadian site devoted to progressive and  social justice issues in Canada is developing an Activist’s Toolkit intended to be a venue for sharing of information.  Its in beta form yet, but is already quite useful, with How-To-Guides, Software Tools, Workshop Outlines and sections for media and research.

I really like this! The concept reminds me of a book that was hugely influential in my middle-youth (when I was a 20-something): Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. Published in 1971,  Steal This Book became a best-seller. It was a how-to for American dissidents who wanted to resist their government.  It was full of  then-radical tips such as how to send a letter for free (put your address on the “To” portion, and the intended address in the “Return” portion; leave the stamp off. The Postal Service would identify insufficient postage and return the letter to sender, AKA the place you wanted it to go to in the first place).  It also had some more problematic info, like how to make a pipe-bomb. Nowadays, we have Google and YouTube for that kind of advice. Likewise, political and corporate policies and procedures, not to mention laws and public attitudes towards dissent and activism, have changed. Steal This Book is now a nostalgic nod to a time when youth activism was prominent on the political landscape, mostly because it is a technological relic.  Which makes the new Activist’s Toolkit so relevant and helpful.  Its a wiki, meaning participants can change and add content over time.  Plus, it is Canadian.  The advice is relevant for our political system.

What do they have in common? The idea that a democracy works best when its citizenry are engaged, know how the system works, and can work in solidarity to make sure that our governments work on our behalf.


Posted in Social Justice | Comments Off on An Activist Toolkit Wiki For Canadians

Madang Anti-Violence Protest

Posted by Ethnographer | Ecographer on December 6, 2009

Dec 7 2009

It has been a tense week in Madang town. The response to the brutal home invasion, rape and torture of a woman who has been a pillar of the community for decades has been shock, anger and deep sadness. One of the few women in PNG to receive an OBE, Madang’s only “Dame” has contributed so much to the people of Madang Province. From hospital beds to rural school supplies to children’s education to support for the fledgling Provincial AIDS Committee, she has been there for Papua New Guineans. Now a rather frail, yet feisty septuagenarian, the lady was an easy target for the hooligans known to be living in the Provincial Health Department’s compound near her home.  The same thugs are suspected to have assaulted the Fred Hollow’s Eye Clinic Physician a few months ago, while he was on duty in the hospital.  In this same week, other women in Madang have been raped or murdered, and this form of violence against women has been increasing over the past two years. The fact that this latest attack was against someone who has done so much for the people has brought the escalation of violence, and in particular violence against women, to the forefront of public attention.  It has also made the international NGOs reconsider their position on being in Madang, and whether they should bring female staff or volunteers to Madang. Fred Hollows evacuated their staff. It is unclear when – or if – they will return to reopen Madang’s eye clinic.

Women’s groups, local politicians and grassroots ‘mamas’  and ‘papas’ mobilised to demand stronger support from the provincial administration. A protest was planned for this morning (Monday Dec 7’09), to march from Bates Oval in the centre of Madang town, to the Provincial Assembly. Late Sunday night, rumours and sms messages circulated, saying  that the protest was to be postponed until Thursday afternoon.  Consequently, this morning, many of us stayed home. We grumbled that changing the plan for a popular protest was a great way to dilute the action and weaken the need for government response. However, many Madang-ites did not hear that rumour. They showed up in force at Bates Oval and decided to hold the march anyway. As soon as news spread that the protest march was on, I  jumped in a vehicle with Nancy Sullivan and we raced toward the marchers. We arrived just as they were parading around the Assembly grounds, yelling “no more rape!” The governor Sir Arnold Amet, Provincial Administrator Joseph Dorpar and two members of Parliament, Ken Fairweather and John Hickey were ready to listen to the crowd, and receive a petition.  For the first hour, various women and men spoke, using a loud hailer. Women described being shot by their husbands, of having a child murdered. They reminded the crown and the politicians that women were the fundamental basis of the family, the community and life itself. We could not stay long enough to hear if people got around to calling for better community policing, more justice, and peace, as I hope they did.

The results of the protest are as yet unclear. But the mood of the crowd was not. People are clear that Enough is Enough. Handmade signs called on men to recognise that their son’s behaviour was modelled on their own, and that women deserved respect.  This may be Madang’s first popular protest against violence against women.  Meanwhile, the woman who was attacked is under medical care in her home, suffering the side affects from post-exposure prophylaxis against STIs, HIV, and the multiple physical injuries she suffered at the hands of men who local people are referring to as “the animals”.

For more commentary see:


photos I took with my iphone:

Posted in Ethnography, Feminist, Papua New Guinea, Social Justice, Violence against women, Women's Work | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Bali 2009

Posted by Ethnographer | Ecographer on October 12, 2009

I came to Ubud to get some writing done. My timing was fortuitous, in that the 6th UWRF began in the week of my arrival. Knowing I was mingling with writers, ranging from Wole Soyinka, Marco Calvani and Shamini Flint to unpublished hopefuls, has been inspiring and excellent for the work ethic. I met some lovely people — artist/designers/jewellers Tisha and Jan Oldham, their journalist friend Margo Lang and Kenyan Shalini Gidoomal shine out — It also gave me the opportunity to take two workshops. My new friend Shelley Keingsberg‘s Editing for Writers was a really helpful kick in the pants, reminding me that ‘less is more’ , language should be euphonic, and cliche’s should be avoided like the plague. Oops.

The same themes played through Michelle Cahill‘s workshop on poetry. Now comes confession time. I do write poetry. On rare occasions. At least stuff I wanted to have confirmed counted as poetry (or not). Michelle offered clear rules and sensitive feedback: Avoid lazy words (‘beautiful’ ‘lovely’), start with the specific before the abstract, don’t overindulge in intellectual gymnastics and vague referents, don’t be clever or sophisticated for the sake of being sophisticated or clever. And avoid cliches like the plague. Oops.

But when you’ve mastered the rules, she says, then sometimes you can break them.

Breaking the rules appeals to me, and in that spirit, here is the poem I read in the class, that I thought was an example of everything Not To Do, but which instead is, apparently, an example of ventriloquising. Breaking the rules in order to make them work better. Or something like that:

{with apologies to Eliot, Carson & Cummings}

In the room the women come and go
speaking of Plath and Pollock, or Foucault,
New beginnings (are there any other kind?) are hard.

Beatrice was 17 when Dante was inspired (the 2nd time)
She was 55 when La Commedia was complete. Sappho put it more simply.
Speaking of a young girl she said, You Burn Me.

Deneuve usually begins with herself: Sweater buttoned
almost to the neck, she sits at the head of the seminar table

“Did you know that Solon introduced coins as substitutes for real value?”
Athenian credit, a currency of promises. My Deneuve refers to disparities of colony, wealth and women’s health while inner monologues swirl

I grow old … I grow old …Shall I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled?
When I am an old woman shall I wear purple
with a red hat which doesn’t go?

If you asked her, Deneuve would say
Take these days away
pour them out on the ground in another country.

She has a point. Red hats have become too banal to be anymore
a true revolt against yellow fog curling like cats, spilled tea cups, the beauty
of past husbands and etc.

Maybe I will weave baskets and words amid gardens and waves, gaining notoriety in place of popularity, shading my eyes against the glare
of didn’ts, haven’ts, won’ts, can’ts

Perhaps I’ll climb among the up so many dells down,
listening to snowflakes and light bulbs and whistles in mountain
passes of a distant how-town,

No Beatrice I, let me go while I am able,
even though the evening is spread out against the sky
(yeah, just like a patient etherised upon a table)

Let me march against drummers of violent tides, in rhythm with what
– as Marilyn Monroe said to the Etruscans to make them laugh –
Tomorrow will certainly be


Posted in Ethnography, Feminist, News | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »


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