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Macalester’s best-kept secret: Meet the Anthropology department

Associate Professor Scott Legge, Risa Luther ’16, and Cecilia Mayer ’16 pose at the 2016 American Association of Physical Anthropologists meeting in Atlanta with their research posters. Photo courtesy of Mayer.

In Oct. 2016, Katherine Brown ’16 and Dubie Toa-Kwapong ’16 were awarded first place and honorable mention for the Sylvia Forman Prize for Outstanding Student Papers. “We were terribly worried [that it would look suspicious],” said Professor Carla Jones, who serves as the President of the Association for Feminist Anthropology, which gives out the Sylvia Forman prize each year. “But it’s a real testament to Macalester that we chose to give both the award and the honorable mention. There’s no question that we were persuaded.”

A year later, another Macalester student, Caroline Vellenga-Buban ’17, was awarded the same prize. Since 2010, Macalester’s anthropology students have raked in 16 prizes at national competitions across the country. They often compete against undergraduate students from large research universities, and sometimes against graduate students. According to Associate Professor Zeynep Gürsel, who teaches in the International Studies department but was trained as an anthropologist, these successes are all the more remarkable considering Macalester’s size: “If I didn’t teach at Macalester, I would be wondering how such a small school’s Anthropology department was getting so much recognition nationally.”

Jones, who is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, agreed with Gürsel’s assessment: “Whatever they’re doing in the Anthropology department at Macalester, they should keep doing it. We’ve been very impressed.”

When asked about their department’s remarkable success, students and faculty from the Anthropology department described an emphasis on field research, theoretical understandings, close relationships with professors and a strong culture of presenting their work to the outside world. Located in the basement of Carnegie Hall, the Anthropology department is home to five full-time professors and roughly 40 majors and 10 minors.

Anthropology, or “the study of humankind”, is a wide-ranging discipline consisting of four sub-fields: cultural anthropology, which is the study of human cultures and societies in the present; archaeology; linguistic anthropology; and biological anthropology. “Together, they tell us the story of the human species,” explained Professor Arjun Guneratne, a cultural anthropologist whose interests include ethnic identities, globalization and South Asia.

“For five professors in this department, the breadth of what we do is incredible,” said Associate Professor and Department Chair Scott Legge, the department’s sole biological anthropologist. “I like anthropology because it’s at the crux between the natural, social sciences, the humanities and the fine arts. A student who does anthropology has the opportunity to do lab work like a student in Olin Rice or to do field research in ethnography like a true social scientist. Anthropology is at that nexus point where you can do all of those things.”

The department also consists of Associate Professor Olga González, who specializes in cultural and psychological anthropology, as well as Latin America; Professor Dianna Shandy, a sociocultural anthropologist whose research relates to immigration and political conflicts in Europe, Africa and North America; and Professor Ron Barrett, a cultural and medical anthropologist who focuses on infectious diseases and death in India and the United States.

Guneratne arrived at Macalester in the fall of 1995, making him the department’s longest-serving professor. “The department has changed significantly since I arrived. We have branched out from what we used to offer,” Guneratne said, noting that medical anthropology and archaeology are relatively new additions to the department. He also explained that the department has become much smaller since his arrival: “The numbers have students have declined. I’m not quite sure why, but when I joined, we didn’t have an International Studies program, and students who came to Mac who were interested in other parts of the world were drawn to anthropology, because more than any other major in this building, anthropology is the study of other cultures, other peoples, other ways of life, and now there are lots of other options for students.”

Anthropology majors begin their journey in the discipline with one of the department’s introductory classes: either Cultural Anthropology or General Anthropology. “Those classes introduce you to how anthropologists think,” Guneratne explained. Next, students take a methods course called Ethnographic Interviewing, where they are taught how to conduct interviews in order to gain qualitative data and use that data to write a paper. Students must also take one theory class, one biological anthropology course, five electives and a senior seminar.

Additionally, the department encourages students to study abroad on a program with a significant independent study component. “You’re in Guatemala or Nepal or France or wherever it is, and you’re given a month to go off and do an independent study project,” Guneratne explained. “This is where your training in ethnographic methods becomes very useful. You know how to conduct interviews and so on.” This research from study abroad often becomes the basis of a student’s senior capstone project, which must be based on original field research.

“This ensures that the papers are extremely rich and grounded in the data and the students have a very good understanding of what they’re writing about,” he said. “The net result is that we have very high quality papers, and what we do as a department is that we encourage the students to submit papers to various kinds of national prizes.” Many of these competitions are offered by various branches of the American Anthropology Association which specialize in specific areas of anthropology, such as the Association for Feminist Anthropology or the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Legge also noted that the department makes an effort to push students to submit their papers to outside conferences. “It’s one thing to get validation inside Macalester, but it’s a whole other thing to get validation outside of Macalester,” he said. “These students really are doing spectacular work. We try to work with students to make sure their submissions are as strong as possible.”

“There have been comments because we have been winning these prizes, and the comments are, ‘Oh my God, Macalester again,’” added González. “In every case, it is about writing and rewriting and having students who listen and read carefully and pay attention to your comments.”

The anthropology majors interviewed in this article spoke very highly of their professors, their peers and their classes. “Being in the Anthropology department always made me feel like a huge nerd because I loved all of the classes I took,” said Katherine Brown ’16, one of the winners of the 2016 Sylvia Forman Prize. Brown came to the major in her sophomore year, when she took Cultural Anthropology with Professor Shandy and discovered that the department would allow her to design an independent research project on whatever project she wanted–in her case, German Turks. She spent her junior year abroad in Turkey, where she worked closely with a local professor who specialized in German Turkish studies. Brown interviewed ethnic Turks who had been raised in Germany but moved to Turkey as adolescents or adults. “I hadn’t finished my research by the time first semester was over and I didn’t really want to come back to January in Minnesota, so I decided to take a leave of absence from Mac for a semester to finish my research,” Brown recalled.

This research served as the basis for the award-winning paper which she wrote for her senior capstone, titled “Relearning Womanhood: An Ethnographic Study of German Turks in Istanbul.” Looking back on the capstone experience, Brown said, “It’s a ton of work to write a capstone, and I attribute my success in the competition to a combination of caring a lot about my topic and to great advising from both [Guneratne] and [Professor] Holly Barcus in the Geography Department.”

Brown is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Applied Cultural Analysis at the University of Copenhagen. “It’s basically a Masters in applying ethnographic research to organizational problems,” she explained. “I think one of the most unique things about the Mac anthropology department is its focus on methodology. That was so valuable for what I’m doing now and I’m honestly not sure I’d have kept going in the field without it.”

Dubie Toa-Kwapong ’16 was awarded the honorable mention for the 2016 Sylvia Forman Prize and won the 2016 Nancy “Penny” Schwartz Undergraduate Essay Award from the Association for Africanist Anthropology. Toa-Kwapong took Cultural Anthropology with Professor González during the spring semester of her first year at Macalester, and declared an anthropology major that semester. “Professor Gürsel once told me that the Anthropology Department is Macalester’s best kept secret. I think she is absolutely right,” she said.

When it came time to choose a study abroad program, Toa-Kwapong knew exactly where she wanted to go: “I quickly settled on the brand new Ashesi-Macalester Exchange Program [in Ghana]. I remember feeling such a sense of calm when I submitted my application materials,” she recalled. Toa-Kwapong was born in Norway but has a British passport and Ghanaian roots. “Over the first couples of months in Ghana, I struggled with being perceived as a foreigner,” she said. For her independent research project, she decided to focus on Ghanaians who migrate back to Ghana after spending time in the West. “I looked at how many return in pursuit of something akin to an ‘an African dream’, how gender affects the experience, if the migrants are able to reintegrate, and if they are back home for good.”

She ended up returning to Ghana to complete more research the following summer on a scholarship from the department, and received the Schwartz Award for her paper titled “Alienation, (Re)integration or Something in Between: Return Migration to Accra, Ghana and Cultural Liminality.” Looking back at her time in the Anthropology department, Toa-Kwapong expressed gratitude to González and Shandy: “These two brilliant women have been so important to my development as a scholar and I am immensely grateful to have been mentored by them.” She hopes to go to graduate school soon and continue doing research on the African continent and its diaspora.

Like Brown and Toa-Kwapong, Kate Rhodes ’17 was drawn to anthropology after taking Cultural Anthropology during her sophomore year. “I loved the way we conducted the research–combining scholarly articles with interviews and participant observation–and decided that it was something I wanted to study further,” she recalled. “The Anthropology major also offered the opportunity to take classes on a variety of different topics, which was very appealing as I wasn’t positive exactly what I wanted to study as a sophomore.” Rhodes studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she “spent the three months abroad conducting interviews as to why it is that people who identify as women cook regularly, but the gastronomic identity of Argentina is rooted in the single dish – asado, which is meat cooked outside over a large grill – which is traditionally cooked by people who identify as men.”

Rhodes’ final paper, titled “Having a Steak in the Matter: Gender in the Buenos Aires Asado”, won the 2017 Christine Wilson Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition. “I attribute the paper’s success to all my informants who took the time to speak to me and show me their styles of cooking, my wonderful capstone professors who tirelessly read numerous drafts and to my amazing capstone classmates who all pushed each other to conduct detailed research and write wonderful papers,” she said, adding, “Each professor in the anthropology department helped me grow as a student throughout my time at Mac. My academic advisor, Olga González, was incredibly supportive of my research.”

Rhodes is now living in New York, coordinating health education seminars at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “The skills I learned as an Anthro major have been useful in my past internships, in my current job, and will be relevant in whatever field I move on to in the future,” she concluded. “The ability to construct compelling narratives, conduct research, and effectively communicate are skills that will help me wherever I work.”

Cecilia Mayer ’16 also declared her Anthropology major after taking Cultural Anthropology, but it wasn’t until she took Medical Anthropology with Professor Legge that she realized exactly what she wanted to pursue. “All the cultural anthropology classes I took were exciting, eye-opening, and inspiring, but none of them were quite right for me. Then I took Human Osteology and Paleopathology, which challenged me and reminded me of my love for bones,” she explained. “Every class I took [with Legge] has been nothing less than awesome, which just reminds me that I chose the right field and found the right mentor.”

Mayer received the 2016 Sherwood Washburn Prize for Exemplary Student Research for her poster presentation “How tough is the grey-cheeked mangabey? Patterns of healed skeletal trauma in Lophocebus albigena.” Her competition included a significant number of graduate students pursuing their PhDs. “People were shocked that I wasn’t a graduate student,” Mayer recalled. She is one of the only undergraduate students to ever win the Washburn prize. “Additionally, very rarely are such small schools–especially without graduate programs– recognized at conferences like these, and as Macalester had a biological anthropology department of exactly one professor and three senior majors at at the time, it was thrilling to represent Macalester.” After graduation, Mayer received a Critical Language Scholarship to study Indonesian in Bali and later got a job as a research assistant at an orangutan research site in Indonesia. She is now readjusting to life in Seattle and applying to graduate programs in biological anthropology.

Caroline Vellenga-Buban was drawn to the anthropology major because it provided an opportunity to combine theory and practice in an interdisciplinary setting. “ My favorite courses at Mac were the ones where I had an opportunity to connect theories to everyday life, even when we were tackling difficult subjects,” she said. Throughout her time at Macalester, she worked closely with Professors González and Legge: “The Anthropology department is really special, like a lot of departments at Mac, because you get to spend time with faculty one-on-one and make connections.”

Vellenga-Buban studied abroad in the Netherlands, but carried out the research for her award-winning capstone paper in the Twin Cities. “I studied American LGBT parents and the ways they sometimes conform to and subvert norms usually associated with heterosexuality and ‘Family Values’ rhetoric by doing interviews and connecting those stories to theories about power, habitus and reproduction,” she explained. She received the 2017 Sylvia Forman Prize for her paper “Queer and Mainstream? LGBT Parents and American Family Values.” Vellenga-Buban is currently working as a barista in the Twin Cities and is considering a graduate degree in the future. “I know that my experiences and skills gained from being an anthropology major will follow me and inform me,” she said. “I learned how to be a good researcher, a good writer, how to engage with cultural difference, how to talk to and work with people and many other basic skills. Studying anthropology helped me develop as a person.”

Like many departments at Macalester, the Anthropology department offers an opportunity to work closely with professors, complete independent research and apply classroom knowledge to the outside world. Although the success of the students at national competitions is remarkable for such a small department at a small school, most of the professors and students interviewed in the article made sure to link their experiences in the department to the rest of the Macalester community. “It’s not just our majors that are so strong, it’s the entire pool of students at Macalester,” Legge said. “Looking to the future, we hope to continue making connections to other departments and to keep tapping into all of the expertise that exists on campus.”

Juliette Verlaque
Associate Features Editor

Juliette Verlaque (she/her/hers) is a sophomore and political science major from Connecticut. She is the Associate Features editor of The Mac Weekly. Her favorite TV show is The West Wing.

November 10, 2017

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