Rex over at Savage Minds has asked those of us in the blogosphere to write love letters to anthropology, to remind us all why we got into this complicated field in the first place. Here’s mine.
Years before I knew you, I loved you. Looking back on my school projects, it is clear you were on my mind. I suspect my first notion of you came about through my mother. She had a love for listening to other folks’ conversations in public settings, which she shared with me. Together we would analyze the behaviors of people we watched and overheard, trying to determine relationships and infer cultural patterns. She was trained as a nurse, observational skills were necessary for evaluating her patients. I enjoyed the challenge of entering into a situation and figuring out what was going on, who was in control, and what types of interpersonal dynamics were at play. People were just interesting to me. But I did not know yet what I loved.
Then came college, when many of us find our first true loves. I had thought my love was physics, but I was quickly scorned. Nothing I could do would make that relationship a peaceful one. Physics had standards I could not reach. We could not communicate with one another. I probably could have tried harder to make it work, but a relationship that required so much effort seemed wrong. I didn’t expect love to be easy, but a constant struggle was going to break me. After a year and ½ together, I knew I needed to save myself. And so I spent the second half of my sophomore year cheating on physics and flirting with other disciplines. And that is how I found you.
I really ought to thank my friend Andy, he introduced my to you unintentionally. I was planning to flirt with history, geology and political science, while still seeing physics. I had room in my schedule for one more date. And Andy had moved out of the dorm and I missed spending time with my friend. So when he suggested I take ‘Archaeology of Ancient Egypt’ with him, I said yes. I did not say yes for you, I said yes for my friend. He had no idea where this was going to lead.
I enjoyed my flirtations. All of these disciplines were interesting to me. But during that term, the Egyptologist told fanciful tales of adventure. They were enticing, they took me out of a dull physics laboratory full of little spring loaded cars into another country that was active not because of force vectors, but because of human energy. More than that, though, I discovered that there were other people in the world who enjoyed observing and interpreting what people do all day. Sure, we eventually discussed Pharonic Egypt and the Pyramids, and that was fantastic. But for the first 1/3 of that semester we discussed things like microliths – small slivers of stone that were used to make compound tools. I was entranced to discover how much we could discover about people by looking at these little blades. The rest of the class was falling asleep and groaning about the fact that we were not yet discussing King Tut. This was the moment I realized that you and I could have something special together. I connected with you in a way that others did not connect with you. This was the begin of my love for you, anthropology.
I went home one of those days and pulled out my course catalog, a thick book full of class listings and departmental information. I had no idea what department my archaeology class was even included in – I just signed up for the code Andy had told me to type in. I looked up Anthropology in the catalog. This word was new to me – we had never discussed it in high school. It was not a program anyone I knew was in. I read the two paragraph description of the discipline. Never had I read such wonderful words. I do not remember the original words, but I can tell you how I translated them in my head “Dear Megan, there are people who spend their lives researching what it means to be human. They go to all the different regions of the world to spend time with people, to look at the remains of our ancestors, and try to understand how we got to be so interesting and different from one another, but at the same time so similar. Humans are amazing! And unusual! And you can combine your love of history, geology and political science by becoming an anthropologist! If you can connect your interest to humans, you can study ANYTHING YOU WANT in anthropology! And you can study all of it! There is a discipline just for you! We’re sorry no one told you about us before. Since we interweave with so many other fields, sometimes people do not even realize they are studying anthropology. But we are here, come love your species with us!”
I made an appointment with the anthropology advisor right away, and shortly thereafter became an anthropology major. I loved everything about you anthropology, I still do. When I applied to graduate school I applied to programs that would have my studying the environments of early hominds, and I applied to a program that would have had me studying Native American communities in the 1600s. I got into both, and I had to decide. My decision was a bit sheepish – I went with ethnohistory in part because I feared I would not survive the paleoanthropology programs. I do not regret my decision though, it was right for me. As an ethnohistorian I have an opportunity to combine cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology and history together – it allows me to be as near to a generalist as one can manage these days. And I have retained my passion for human evolutionary studies – teaching Introductory courses allows me to keep up on this section of the field as well. I am a generalist at heart; I am fascinated by what makes us all tick, and what makes some of us tock instead. While my research has necessarily narrowed, my passion for understanding how amazing our species is continues. I maintain ties with colleagues in several different sub-disciplines and do not hesitate to ask them questions about their research and fields. So too, do I ask questions of non-anthropologists. Every person I meet has knowledge about humanity to pass on to me. From the carpenters at Yellowstone National Park who identified my metal pipe not as a part of an historic building but as a fishing rod ferule, to my Anishinaabeg friends who invite me to ghost suppers and share their family stories with me. I could learn some of this from books, but it would not be as clear, and it would not be as interesting a life to live. Anthropology, you enrich the world for me, and make every day a new opportunity to gain more insight into the human world. I am forever grateful, and can not imagine my life without you.