Four fields and teaching intro courses

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Sat, 1 Apr 1995 02:06:46 -0600

The news from Columbia is much more saddening than the political agenda of
the Tedlocks in editing American Anthropologist. Presumably, the
continuing membership of the AAA can eventually change the AA agenda if we
choose. But killing the four-field approach at what has been one of our
profession's leading producers of teachers of anthropology could lead to
the eventual destruction of what has been, until now, the hallmark
distinguishing U.S. anthropology from other academic fields. (Don't tell
me that Columbia is merely joining a host of other leading institutions,
including my own alma mater. That's just what I mean.)

I am a social anthropologist. My fieldwork, on politics, kinship, and
"minorities" (or intergroup power relations, if you will), takes place in
Mexico, Central America, and the U.S. I have, in a receding past, done
linguistic research, and on occasion I have published book reviews in
which a knowledge of physical anthropology was a vital part of what I had
to say. On the other hand, I have never done any active research in
physical anthropology or in archaeology.

All four fields of anthropology--and some knowledge of applied anthro, as
well--are necessary prerequisites to what I do as anthropological
researcher. Anyone who tries to look at "minorities" without solid
grounding in physical lacks necessary competence. Anyone who works in
the contemporary cultures of what once was Mesoamerica without sooner or
later gaining knowledge of the archaeology and ethnohistory of the area
may be close to being mentally deficient. That's enough--I won't go on.

Teaching introductory anthropology, it seems to me, requires a breadth of
knowledge I, for one, did not possess when I was fresh out of grad school.
(And I took courses in physical anthro from Clark Howell, Sherry Washburn,
and Ted McCown, archaeology from Kenneth Page Oakley, Bob Adams, and Bob
Braidwood, and linguistics from Norman McQuown, Joe Greenberg, Eric Hamp,
and Morrie Swadesh. Not to mention a host of others who gave guest
lectures to my departments when I was a student.) Perhaps, then, in a
left-handed way I agree that in an ideal world brand new Ph.D.'s should
not be expected to teach introductory anthro. Not until they grow up.
But they never will be able to grow up without solid grounding, as
graduate students, in all of anthropology. Maybe people shouldn't be
allowed to teach introductory anthro until they have tenure. Or even
later. I also believe that anyone who has been a teaching anthropologist
for twenty years or more owes it to the profession to teach a general
introduction to the field at least once a year. Not only that, we owe it
to ourselves.

Anthropology 120: Intro to Anthro forces me to maintain breadth. It makes
me keep up with debates on the development and significance of early
anatomically modern humans; it takes me to the archaeological record in
considering "the origins of the family, private property, and the state"
(sounds familiar; did anybody ever consider that before?); it keeps me on
track considering normative versus descriptive and other approaches to
linguistics--and, by extension, in both ethnography and my understandings
of anthropology itself as a social institution. My ongoing concern with
narrower facets of my own research wouldn't leave me time to keep up with
all that if it weren't for teaching Anthro 120. And if I did NOT keep up,
I would be much the poorer for it. So would my research.

The vote in Columbia's Department of Anthropology is a misstep, and it
will hurt their students. We should all mourn for them, and for what our
profession has lost by Columbia's action.

Let me lighten up: Once upon a long time ago, at another university, I
was in a department faculty meeting where we (not me!) voted to eliminate
the "foreign" language requirement in our Ph.D. program. A colleague with
a broad and learned approach to his work said "O tempora, o mores". The
leader in dropping the language requirement said "What did he say?" (I
swear that's true: ask any old Purdue faculty in the Department of
Anthropology and Sociology. Anthro kept the requirement through the back
door anyhow, I'm pleased to say.)

-- mike salovesh <>