Once upon a time, I had a love affair. It was just like many great whirlwind romances: happened quickly, I wasn’t expecting it, and when it was over I wasn’t really sure what it all meant. I felt like I had given so much of myself to something with nothing to show for it when it was all over. But I’d learned something – about myself, about the kind of woman I wanted to be, and about some other stuff too. Who was at the center of this torrid love story? Well…it was an academic discipline. I know, this post just got a whole lot more boring. Sorry ’bout it. You can keep reading and pretend I said John Mayer. I’m fine with that.
It all started just like any other love story: a spark. I took a class (my very first class, at 8:00am on my very first Monday of college) that was designed as a thematic Freshmen Seminar. The theme was global health, and it was taught by an applied medical anthropologist (Hey, Chad. I doubt you spend a lot of time on my blog…but just in case, sup?). I knew I was interested in health-ish things, and how people actually experienced health and illness, but I didn’t know what kind of lens anthropology would bring to that. And the academic sparks flew. Fast forward a few years, and I was learning everything I could in the social sciences, with an incredible crew of mentors in sociology and anthropology and a wide array of fancy new words in my academic holster (stakeholder, ethnography, inequality…things were getting good). I got the incredible opportunity to travel to the other side of the world and learn research skills in the field. Hell, I could say things like “in the field”.
I also had a passion. Only, it wasn’t called a passion, and when I found it inside myself, no one really told me that’s what it was. Oh no, it was a research focus: food, nutrition, obesity, and childhood. I was, for the first time, excited and passionate about something. I was excited about the new skills I was learning that could help me achieve what I saw as an ultimate goal: helping people. Teaching kids about healthy eating. Helping families find ways to eat healthier. Returning to Palau (that crazy far-away place) to work with children and families there. And I liked anthropology because it was about those children, those families. It helped me focus on them. Really understand them. Find real-life ways to help them.
Yes, as far as I knew, things were blossoming. I was checking all of the boxes: graduating, winning smart people awards, going to graduate school. If there was an “anthropology” checklist, I was working my way through it (and maaaan, do I love a good checklist). But somewhere along the way, I confused the ends with the means.
Academia is a funny place. You spend so much time talking about your research focus in 5 words or less (“child nutrition and health promotion”, or “migrant workers in the Southeastern U.S.”, or “pet-store owners and economic inequality”, or whatever the heck it is), and yet somehow it’s easy to forget that helping those folks, answering their questions, helping them solve their problems…that is the end, and an academic discipline is the means. I think that’s the root of my current crisis. Is there a difference between doing anthropology and being an anthropologist? How many years of schooling does one need before we can feel confident in our skills
How many of the hours that we spend writing theoretical papers and reading scholarly literature are really spent making us more useful to the communities we are purporting to serve…and how much of it is still based in an antiquated need for disciplinary (and, perhaps self) importance and indulgence? Is it possible that “Anthropology” can become purely an academic pursuit…and stop being a really useful means to a truly important end?
And yet, I’ve been working on a book project with said mentor and anthropology-catalyst that has excited me and made me hopeful every single day I get to work on it. The forthcoming book (we’re basically famous, it’ll be out just in time for Christmas, just saying, buy 10 copies for you and your friends) is a compilation of the incredible work that anthropologists have been doing in tangible, applied settings. They’re asking questions, solving problems, and focusing just as much, if not more, on the ends than the means. It’s been fascinating. And, of course, all of these brilliant folks have jumped through the academic hoops. They all did it the right way. They’re brilliant, useful, inspiring people and all work in academia. I feel like parking lot gum and somehow I get to have my name out there with them. Yet, I can’t help but think – is this really the only way?
One day, recently, it really hit me. I was out digging in a school garden with some folks who, like me, were passionate about helping kids learn about, and have access to, healthy foods. Most of these folks were volunteers or part-time employees. Regardless, they were there because they wanted to be. Anyway, I was working in the garden, chatting with volunteers and teachers and a few first graders who (like me) were a little freaked out by all the bugs…and that same, nagging thought popped into my head: “I hope this thesis project is theoretical enough/good enough/sounds smart enough. It’s too bad all I could really do was this school gardening project.” Uh, okay. What. Can we take a minute here? Here I was, *literally* doing what I wanted to be doing. With the people I am passionate about doing it with. And all I can think about is, “ugh, what a waste of time this is. Gotta find some way to put a big word in the title of this project so it sounds more important than it probably is”. Am I a monster or something? What is wrong with me? But I’m realizing…it’s not just me. Somewhere along the way the “ends” we are using anthropology to work toward became something else: reputation, academic success, self-importance, a handful of cool looking letters after our name…big, scary, capital-A “Anthropology” became the ends, instead of the means. And meanwhile, those folks we care about, whose health or status or lives were important to us, they became the means.
Don’t get me wrong – anthropology, to me, is probably the coolest “means” in the world. I am grateful every day for the experiences I’ve had within the discipline itself and the incredible anthropologists I get to work with. And I believe that applied anthropology is well suited (if not best suited) to answer the questions I have and find ways to solve the problems I want to help solve. But somehow, blinded by the desire for a clear cut path, I let “be able to tell people you’re an anthropologist” become the goal – when it never was before.
So, then, what’s next? How do we move forward once we realize, perhaps a bit embarrassed, that we’ve let love lead us away from what we really wanted from it in the first place?
Well, y’all, I have no. freakin’. clue. But I do know this – I want to be useful, and I want to continue learning and getting an education as long as it is useful in helping me pursue my passion and be useful to others. For now, I don’t think more formal education, or sitting in more classrooms, even when getting reading lists and discussing thoughts and ideas with really smart folks and incredibly accomplished faculty…is going to allow me to be anymore useful, to myself or those whom I want to serve, understand, and help. So…I’m going to get myself a Master’s degree, and then find a job that allows me to be an anthropologist and do anthropology simply because of the skills I have and the way I can apply them. And I hope to be useful – to an organization, to a group of people, to one child in a school garden. I will silence that obnoxious voice in my head that tells me that more degrees mean you’re more useful – because, right now, for me, that’s just not true. I will continue using the wonderful anthropological means I have learned to pursue valuable, complicated, fascinating questions and solve problems for valuable, complicated, fascinating people. Because what good is being if you aren’t doing?