Category Archives: Class resources

Items that may be useful for educators

Prezi presentation on “The Future of Anthropology”

The final part of my trilogy of Prezis: a short discussion of the future of anthropology, both in terms of future research topics (because humanity is changing in interesting ways), and its future as a discipline. Fun stuff!

Embedded below, or viewable here. I have discovered that Prezi now allows you to embed audio, synced with the presentation paths of the Prezis, so at some point I may lay down a narrative track on these and re-share them. In the meantime, make of them what you will.

Prezi presentation on “Culture”

Continuing with the last post, I’ve decided to share this Prezi from the last iteration of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class. The topic of this one is Culture—I put it together to use at the beginning of our second week of class, as a point of departure for a discussion of this key anthropological concept. “Culture” carries a lot of baggage, and there have been many not unreasonable arguments for abandoning it as a conceptual tool in our research methods. However, I don’t think that an introductory class is a viable place for resolving those arguments. For better or worse, “culture” has become anthropology’s most widespread contribution to popular discourse. One of my goals in this class meeting was to provide students with a more historically-grounded yet up-to-date perspective on “culture,” its role in contemporary anthropology, and how our use of the term differs from vernacular / mass media glosses in fundamental ways, despite the occasional appearance of similarity. Ultimately, this is one of those intro-level topics that is easier to address in a seminar-style conversation than in a purely lecture format, because it’s extremely helpful to be able to gauge the students’ background knowledge and their reactions to the ideas that I’m presenting. It’s one thing to encounter blank stares in a lecture hall, and another entirely to have a student ask a question or make a remark that provides an opening for re-presenting the material in a way that may be more accessible. Some of the best breakthroughs are spontaneous, that way.

Anyway, this Prezi helps set the stage for that discussion, but it is not at all a stand-alone presentation. Some notes:

  • The first video, now missing, was a shorter clip I prepared based on an already-existing YouTube clip of the film Cosmic Voyage, which is itself a sort of remake of an older film called Powers of Ten (also available on YouTube). The clip introduces interstellar distance and scale in a more intuitively understandable way than naked charts or numbers can manage—also it features Morgan Freeman as narrator, which offers some measure of reassurance in the face of dawning awareness of the sheer enormity and emptiness that surrounds our fragile planet (and no, I’m not being overly dramatic. You’ll have to watch the video to see for yourself).
  • That whole first section is intended to set the human experience in perspective. Yes, anthropology is about humans, but I think it’s helpful to remember that the natural world we inhabit existed for a long time without us, and that all we have ever experienced or explored is but an infinitesimal fraction of the universe. Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar does a fine job of showing how humans are still noobs at this whole existence thing, but I recently discovered this fantastic resource and I’ll probably incorporate it next time around–perhaps as an “assigned reading.” My inner nerd just loves this stuff.
  • The next section continues to contextualize the human experience by asking that old riddle: what sets us apart from other beings? I assigned a couple of readings that dealt with this topic in greater detail, specifically by presenting updated research from biological anthropology about the amazing intellectual capacities of non-human primates. These four short video clips help to drive the point home—it’s one thing to read about a bonobo playing games, and another entirely to see it handle Pacman better than I could when I was a kid. The students reacted pretty strongly to these videos—they prompted more discussion than the preceding section.
  • Culture as collective memory — this idea for an analogy sprang from some other writing projects I was working on at the time, but I think it’s a useful thought exercise. One of the things that does set us apart from other beings is the enormous reserve of knowledge that we gain from social life. Language, for example, is incredibly powerful and useful, and we get it from being always already embedded in society. In a simple, off-hand way, we can imagine culture as being the accumulated, often anonymous, collective memory of our social group(s). Just as our individual subjectivity is largely shaped, though not entirely determined, by our individual memory, so are we shaped by the knowledge we gain from social belonging. We discussed both the instrumental and symbolic/meaning-focused aspects of culture at this point. Note that I’m not setting these up as contrasts/opposites: meaning is intrinsically ‘instrumental’ in its own way (this harkens back to the previous week, locating anthropology within the academy, and the discussion about the value of humanistic knowledge or a liberal arts education, more generally. The question could just as easily be: what’s the value of economics or “making a living” if life has no greater meaning or joy?)
  • From this point on, the presentation draws more heavily on outside resources—assigned readings and questions that I sent them before our meeting, to prompt them to start thinking about. We talked a bit about earlier conceptualizations of culture within anthropology, and the more recent shift to practice: not so much on what people believe, but on what they do.
  • Final note: The odd table of images here is the product of a sudden inspiration to search Google images for “beauty” in multiple languages, and then posting the top result. As you can see, almost invariably the results were images of women—often apparently from makeup advertisements or for similar products. I only had about ten minutes to put this experiment together, but I think the results were interesting. It gave me a point of departure for talking about the impact of globalization, e.g. the ubiquity of fashion and the overbearing influence of Western social norms on local ideas of beauty elsewhere. At the same time, there are noticeable differences between the results, corresponding to local linguistic-identity markers. (I attempted a similar experiment with searches for “dinner” in different languages, seen in the second matrix of images)

Altogether, this was a fun class meeting to put together. The Prezi is embedded below, or available here.

Hank Green explains human sexuality in 4 minutes

There are some topics that anthropologists are prone to delve into and emerge hours or dozens of pages later, having expertly destabilized and challenged the consensus definitions, et cetera, without necessarily offering a new definition that can be easily digested by others.  This can make it difficult for us when it’s time to introduce said topics to new students–say, in an introductory course.  In this short video from the vlogbrothers YouTube channel, the ever-brilliant Hank Green provides a concise and insightful overview of human sexuality– differentiating sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and gender roles– while even remaining aware of his own unique experience and the limited perspective that this has afforded him.  As with his excellent Crash Course video series, this one features helpful graphs and visual aids to help illustrate his points.  I really think that Hank and his brother John offer great examples of the potential for short, informative videos to enhance education.  While it’s no substitute for face-to-face discussions (e.g., seminar courses), it can be a powerful tool within lecture courses.

The overall goal of this video, as Hank explains, is to hopefully reduce hate–both between groups as well as self-hatred–by clearing up some of the confusion and lack of understanding of these issues.

“… when the world becomes one of infinite continuums and those false dichotomies break down and those two shiny boxes [masculine male/feminine female] break apart into 7 billion shiny boxes, that’s actually pretty beautiful.”

Quick note: Social cause gaming and female empowerment

Just a quick note for now: NY Times has an article about a new game, several years in the making, that promotes awareness of serious challenges to gender equality.  The developers hope to launch it as a Facebook game soon.



A Game Aims to Draw Attention to Women’s Issues –

Isn’t it good, Norwegian firewood?

Here’s one for the file on ‘interesting cultural practices from around the world.’  A recent Norwegian television program about firewood was so popular, 20% of the country tuned in to watch it at some point.  To put that into perspective, the 2008 and 2012 presidential debates brought in around the same percentage of American viewers, while the Rose Bowl and World Series each only brought in about 5% of the US population.

As Sarah Lyall reports in the NY Times, firewood is a big deal in Norway.  The TV program was based on a best-selling book about firewood; apparently it’s a subject that allows men to open up about their feelings without threatening their stoic masculinity. Because nothing says ‘manly’ like chopping firewood, right?

However, this isn’t what stands out about the program.  After all, we have entire networks devoted to shows about lobster fishing and the lumber industry.  No, the surprising thing is that 2/3 of the program wasn’t even scripted TV:

“My first thought was, ‘Well, why not make a TV series about firewood?’” Mr. Moeklebust said in an interview. “And that eventually cut down to a 12-hour show, with four hours of ordinary produced television, and then eight hours of showing a fireplace live.”

Ahem. Eight hours of showing a fireplace live. This is apparently what makes for suspenseful television in the frozen fjords of Norway.

Of course, my first thought was that this provided some kind of passive, background entertainment like a yule log–we recently discovered, to my fiancé’s delight, that our Roku included a few yule log channels during the holiday season.  I had never actually encountered a yule log before this, but I can understand the appeal of having a visual ‘fire’ to go along with christmas tunes while you’re doing other chores around the house. However, Lyall reports that this isn’t your grandparents’ yule log:

While the Yule log fire plays on a constant repeating loop, the fire on “National Firewood Night” burned all night long, in suspensefully unscripted configurations. Fresh wood was added through the hours by an NRK photographer named Ingrid Tangstad Hatlevoll, aided by viewers who sent advice via Facebook on where exactly to place it.

So there you have it. The combination of very ancient technology–wood-burning stoves–and more recent forms of communication–broadcast television–have merged to provide Norwegians with a comforting simulacrum of tradition, no matter where they now live or how they heat their homes.

This article reminded me of the oft-quoted and possibly apocryphal anecdote about how the Inuit supposedly have hundreds of words for what we anglophones simply call ‘snow.’  In anthropology classes, we use this as a handy example of a focal vocabulary, meaning a set of terms and definitions that certain groups of people come to share by way of mutual interest and participation in certain activities.  Other examples include occupational terms–e.g., listen to an episode of any medical drama and you’ll hear the characters throwing around terms (“He’s flat lining! Give me 20 CCs of plasma, stat!”) that normally you would only understand after medical school (or watching a lot of medical dramas). Online gamers have extensive focal vocabularies, often employing a lot of acronyms to quickly and efficiently inform teammates about battle tactics (“That noob is ninja‘ing all the BOP gear” orStack your HOTs on the tank once she aggros those adds).  Incidentally, one of my very favorite wikipedia articles is the talk page behind the entry for Pwn. It pretty clearly demonstrates the level of investment that people are willing to make in debating the meaning and tracing the etymology of language that outsiders would probably find trivial.

Anyway, the popularity of a TV show that basically consisted of eight uninterrupted hours of logs burning makes me wonder if Norwegians have a focal vocabulary for firewood and related things–axes, chopping, etc.  The article delves into the intense public debate among viewers over whether firewood should be stacked with the bark facing up or down (why not to the side? Or facing south?). Like focal vocabularies, the existence of such controversies—and again, the sheer willingness of folks to watch eight hours of burning wood—suggests that this is a domain of experience that Norwegians find particularly meaningful.  If any Norwegians (or experts in the anthropology of Norwegian firewood) happen by, please share your thoughts on the subject.


In Norway, TV Program on Firewood Elicits Passions –