Cultural Anthropology

So tonight I had the first meeting of my second summer session class, and I can’t say that I was terribly impressed by the teacher. The class might still turn out to be all right if the reading/material in general are interesting, but this woman will have to do better than she did to make me think she knows what she’s doing up there.

Some of the things that happened were not necessarily her fault — like not having a recent list of everyone who was enrolled in the class, not having enough syllabuses for everyone (she didn’t expect such a big turn-out because of the week-old list), little things — but she didn’t seem to know how to handle minor set-backs well. Her response to everything seemed to be just to apologize five or six times and promise that it would be corrected “soon.” And some of the other things problems she had were her fault.

For example, her use of a video clip was poor. She did a bad job of introducing the segment in the first place, and then she didn’t even have the spot already found on the tape. We had to watch about five minutes of irrelevant material before we finally got to the part she actually wanted us to see; I have no idea why she didn’t just fast-forward. Maybe she thought it gave a better introduction than hers, but it seemed unrelated to the issue at hand.

The thing that really bothered me, however, was her in-class writing assignment. She spent her whole introduction to cultural anthropology talking about how there are very few universals, even within a single culture, and anthropology is all about studying specifics and differences, blah blah blah. Then she whips out this writing assignment for us all to describe, in a short essay, our high school graduations. I glance over the assignment and see that there are no alternatives, nor does she mention any in her speech. Isn’t she assuming a universal in American culture? If there’s so much diversity in our country, and so many people never have or attend a high school graduation, how can she assume that everyone in the room has had this experience?

Maybe you can argue that because this is a university, people graduate from high school before they go on to secondary education. But wait: it’s not a prerequisite. In addition, the summer session is very different from the regular academic year; anyone can attend this class, which is a lower-division introductory course, as long as they have some basic reading and writing skills. Furthermore, I know for a fact that many people manage to attend university without graduating high school (which can be done without going through the silly ceremony), because I myself, as well as some of my friends, are going to school there, without ever graduating high school.

Now, I know from movies and stuff the basic idea of what goes on at a high school graduation, and we weren’t required to turn in this writing assignment when we were finished, so I could have gone just fine without pointing out that I was technically incapable of completing this exercise. However, I was irritated by her manner, because frankly she was coming across as a hypocrite at this point. Thus, I raised my hand and announced that I had never graduated from any school.

The teacher stared at me like I had grown a second head. Several people around me actually snickered. I spoke up louder this time, “I was home schooled, I took the CHSPE and went to community college. There isn’t a ceremony for that.”

Her winning response was, “Well, did you have some sort of religious ceremony?” Because, as we all know, people only home school their kids if they’re some kind of religious zealots. Yes, I know my parents had weird beliefs, but they chose to teach me because they don’t trust the public school system, and neither do I. Bad assumption #2.

Eventually we agreed on my describing the first time I ever voted, since that’s sort of a cultural rite of passage into adulthood (which was, of course, what she was trying to get at, without revealing it to us until after we’d finished writing), and I completed the assignment, and then I listened to her question the class about their insights. How were high school graduations meant to transform us into adults? In what ways were they a cultural ritual? What she was saying about graduations made sense — she didn’t even try to make a similar argument for voting, because there isn’t much special about it or a comparable family involvement — but she kept trying to include me in weird ways, like she was trying to get over her original mistake. The way she did this was to make an analogy between the fact that her high school graduation was a long time ago and she can’t remember it that well, and the fact that I never had one. Even if you can’t remember the event, or never experienced it, it was still something which transformed you, right? Um, no! Bad assumption #3.

After this we watched a video about rites of passage in an African tribe, which was pretty ethnocentric. The narrator kept interviewing these women and harping on the differences between “European culture” (since there’s only one) and the tribe’s culture. Wow, how can you stand to share your husband with other women? Don’t you know European women get jealous? Are you people actually happy? She kept asking that, if they were happy with this or that thing. Well, it’s their culture, it’s normal to them! Not everyone’s going to be happy all of the time, but they’re not going to see anything wrong with the way they do things just because you come and tell them someone else does things differently.

I thought the teacher would comment on how this was a bad example of the ethnographic style she was describing, but she just said it showed how very different they were from us. Then she felt it necessary to define the term “bride price.” “Well, this may sound very bizarre to you guys, but a bride price is the price that you pay for a bride.” That was her exact wording. Very descriptive. You never could have guessed that from the term.

Tomorrow I’m going to try and find the books we’re reading, which aren’t available at the official university bookstore or the student-run co-op on campus, but at a bookstore downtown. I hope they have enough copies, because the teacher wasn’t expecting this many people.

I guess the good news about this course is that if I finish it, I’ll have completed my general education requirements, and I’ll never have to take a lame lower-division course again. Maybe I’ll just shut up in class, do the minimum work to pass, and not get too worked up over it. In the meantime, a very wonderful boyfriend has just made me brownies oozing with hot fudge, and I am going to go indulge. Good night.


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