Public Outreach: Sharing Anthropology Outside the University


Work Hard. Be Nice.” – motto at the KIPP school in Lynn, Massachusetts

Over the past few months, I’ve done more voluntary outreach teaching than at any point in my past. In sum, I’ve spoken to four separate 4th grade classes in Cranston Rhode Island, three separate 8th grade classes at KIPP Lynn, and given five lectures to 50 year-old+ adults at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Boston. All of these presentations/ discussions were 40 to 90 minutes each, and pertained to primate biology/behavior, human biological variation, or the human fossil record. Why now?

One reason is that I feel strongly that anthropology deserves to be shared with a wider audience beyond college undergraduates. It’s hard to believe that since teaching my first summer class in grad school, I’ve now taught undergraduates for twelve years. While I’m not that old (really, I’m not, despite what my sons say), twelve years is long enough to make some basic observations. One is that most people have no idea what anthropology even is, and few people enter college with the intention of majoring in it. Instead, they stumble haphazardly into it via word of mouth, being inspired by an Indiana Jones movie or some forensics show on TV (both problematic), an interesting course description that serendipitously catches their eye, or to fill some general education requirement.

….

That is a shame. Anthropology has some important things, essential things, to say about the human condition, such as where we come from, how old our species is, and how to make sense of human cultural and biological diversity. Jamie Jones has written eloquently about anthropology’s relevance, and his fear that we may too often pursue esoteric topics:

I worry for my beloved discipline’s future.  If we continue failing to connect with humanity’s big questions — if we fail to engage a broader community — we are relegated to doing poorly-funded and theoretically unsophisticated biology, literary criticism without any texts, and telling stories that no one outside our immediate circles either believes or even cares about.”

Aside from our academic writing, anthropologists can also reach out to the public through popular books, blogging (of course), and as Kate Clancy has pointed out, by collaborating with journalists. At the grassroots level, volunteer teaching offers the chance to reach different audiences directly and expose students of all ages to subjects they might not encounter otherwise. This is not to say that teachers are not doing their job. Far from it. The fact is that we all have areas of knowledge in which we are strong and others in which we are less strong. We could all benefit from others’ expertise.

Perhaps a more important reason for outreach teaching is obligation to others. I know I’m very fortunate to be where I am, and should be doing more to give back and share the wealth. Or, as they say at KIPP: “Work hard. Be nice.” (That motto should be posted everywhere). Although many people may not realize it, in addition to teaching, writing, and research, faculty are also asked to conduct service in and out of the university. So, I asked around to see if any teachers might be interested in having a bioanthropologist visit their classroom, and in December a family friend invited me to talk to her 4th graders. Things went so well, they invited me back a few weeks ago.

Additionally, someone I admire pointed me in the direction of Teach for America, and the good work that they do across the country. After inquiring at TFA Providence (no luck) and TFA Boston if they could use a guest speaker, I was connected with a kind, energetic science teacher at KIPP Lynn who welcomed me into her classroom. Last week, I got the chance to speak with her 80+ very inquisitive, polite, and intelligent 8th graders about primates and human evolution.

All of these classes were awesome, just as their teachers told me they would be. What I’ve learned is that the big ideas emanating from anthropology can pique almost any student’s curiosity, whether they be 10, 14, 20, or 60 years old. At its essence, teaching is pretty simple: find an idea that excites you and share it. Chances are that it will excite others as well. Show them this or this, and watch the lightbulbs go on over their heads and the smiles form on their faces. (Go ahead, click on those links. You won’t regret it).

In fact, sharing anthropology doesn’t feel at all like service. Certainly, the time spent preparing a presentation, traveling, and in the classroom is time that could be spent doing other things, but it is also immediately rewarding. In their innocence, some of the 4th graders even asked me for an autograph, which frankly made me feel pretty good. Their teachers also had their students write thank-you notes and describe what they learned. And, if you’re lucky, you might get the chance to read a book of your choice to them (“Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” by Dr. Seuss), play a little morning kickball with some 8th graders (I was held to a mere single in my only at-bat), or be invited to a pizza party. 

Finally, these experiences have enhanced my respect for grade school teachers and the work they do. Teaching college students presents its own challenges, but in my opinion our elementary and high school teachers are severely underappreciated. Unfortunately, in the U.S. teachers are often unfairly denigrated or mocked. Contrast that with other countries, such as South Korea, where teachers are revered as “nation builders.”

Clearly, our priorities are askew. The amount of work our teachers do, and the high amount of contact time they have with our youngest minds, is crucial to our future generation of thinkers and citizens. At KIPP Lynn, students attend school from 7 am to 5 pm, including one Saturday a month, and 3 weeks of summer classes! Teachers are there even longer. Who says they don’t work hard? But they could probably use some help every once in a while.

My plan is to keep doing this for a long time. Should have started years ago.

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One thought on “Public Outreach: Sharing Anthropology Outside the University

  1. Pingback: Public Outreach 2: KIPP Lynn « Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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