Shifting Students’ Perspectives for Opportunities Post-Graduation: Reflections from a CNDLS Professional

Jennifer Lubkin Chávez, Program Manager for Technology Enhanced Learning in CNDLS, shares how her undergraduate studies in anthropology continue to inform her work in education. She suggests that recognizing anthropology as a practice, not simply a major or career field, can help students value the skills they have gained through their studies as well as broaden their job search. These were remarks at her alma mater, Washington College, to students being inducted into Lambda Alpha, the national honor society for anthropology.

Good evening. Congratulations to all of the new inductees of the Lambda Alpha Honor Society!

And thank you to Professor Markin for inviting me to speak tonight and for giving me this opportunity to reflect back on the anthropology that I learned here and how it has carried into my career.

It is hard to believe that it’s been nearly 16 years since I graduated from Washington College, and harder still to believe—though it’s wonderful—how much anthropology at Washington College has grown.

Tonight I want to share a little bit about my journey with anthropology—I hope not to be self-indulgent. I’m thinking maybe you will recognize pieces of yourself in this story and so perhaps see some possibilities and some opportunities that you may not have considered before.

I’m not sure when I first heard about the field of anthropology—I came from fairly rural public schools where it wasn’t offered—but somehow by the end of high school, I had become convinced that I was going to study anthropology in college. Perhaps like some of you it was because I had felt like a participant observer all my life, present but not quite belonging, and always wavering between being intrigued and confused by others… But I was convinced, and the Washington College Course Catalog, which described a generous handful of anthro courses, was drool-worthy fodder to my daydreams.

So I make it to Washington College.

Imagine my surprise—and my level of ignorance—to discover that there was no major in anthropology here at Washington College. (This was back in 1996.)

I wasn’t dissuaded. I returned to the course catalog, paying a bit more attention to the information on majors (versus individual courses) and discovered the option to design an independent major. I researched cultural anthropology majors at other schools and wrote up a detailed proposal. Got it approved. And, to the best of my knowledge, was the college’s first declared major in anthropology.

Just a disclaimer from here on out: when I started here, John Seidel hadn’t come on the scene yet, let alone any of the other current professors. There was no archaeology, no GIS. Just foundational classes in cultural anthropology and an occasional seminar. There was one anthropology professor (Jeanette Sherbondy), a few minors, an occasional adjunct. And me. So anyway, when I say anthropology, I’m really talking about my experience with cultural anthropology. Disclaimer done.

So I’m here at WC. I did well in my classes. Loved the readings. Cherished the worldview that was unfurling—a worldview that was totally unfamiliar but somehow totally resonant.

And then.

And then #1: I attended the American Anthropological Association (AAA) conference, held that year in Philadelphia. And I took away two searing impressions: (a) presenters, standing at a lectern, espousing their theories on distant, foreign cultures as if they were fact, never revealing potential alternate interpretations, never admitting to their ignorance, and never offering credit to the people who generously shared their world and (b) audience members who proved their self-worth through long-winded, hyper-critical questions. I hope AAA has changes in these nearly 20 years. But even if it hasn’t, I don’t say these things to warn you off anthropology—what I didn’t understand then but I do now is that those were some individual anthropologists, but that wasn’t anthropology. Still, at that time, I did have trouble recognizing how I might fit…

And then #2: I studied abroad. Though at the time my heart was enamored with Granada, Spain, my finances (or lack thereof) ruled in favor of Ecuador. With deep thanks to the Society of Junior Fellows and my sister—who let me run up her credit card—I spent five months in Quito. As someone who had never traveled outside the US and rarely traveled inside the US, barely able to introduce myself in Spanish, I wasn’t prepared for culture shock. Heck, I wasn’t prepared for the challenge of buying a shirt in a market, let alone conducting fieldwork. I came home glad to have gone, much more fluent in Spanish, much more cognizant and respectful of the challenges of living and working in another culture with another language…and weighed down by a feeling of failure.

With the emotional residue of my study abroad experience piled on to my impression of anthropology— coupled, I should say, with my limited knowledge and understanding of the field—I abandoned my plans to eventually pursue a PhD.

Burnt out from an intense four years, I also delayed—indefinitely, as it turned out—my education practicum to finish my certification in secondary school social studies. Instead, I followed an alternate career path, working in digital imaging for a few years here in Chestertown.

And then.

And then a few years in, I realized it wasn’t for me. And I didn’t know what was next. I was facing possibly the toughest time in my life. I was convinced of what I didn’t want to do. Unsure of what I did. Still in Chestertown, I took the opportunity to visit Linda Cades and Vicky Sawyer in the Career Center. They stepped me through several exercises to help clarify my interests and while, disappointingly, there was no big, red, blinking arrow pointing to a particular career, what did come out of it were three words that became a touchstone for me: culture, language, education.

I mulled these words as if they were a math equation adding up to a career direction. What I *should* have done was take Linda and Vicky’s advice to just pick something, anything, any maybe, and try it for six months. Put a date on the calendar to meet with friends to explain either why I was staying past six months or why I was moving on. I should have done that. Highly recommend it. Instead, I spent a year mostly sleeping on my sister’s couch. And revisiting that touchstone: culture, language, education.

And eventually the equation did resolve: As a plan F that became a plan A, I applied for the Peace Corps and a year later—the processing period has been reduced, by the way to a few months—I was in Azerbaijan as a volunteer teacher of English as a Foreign Language.

Fast-forwarding, I served in the Peace Corps for 27 months, came to Washington, DC, for a Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages at American University, taught immigrants for a year at a local community college, taught international students at Georgetown University for six years, and now have been working at Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (what we call CNDLS)—basically our center for teaching excellence—for the last couple of years where I’ve worn a few different hats: helping faculty integrate technology into their teaching, shepherding faculty projects like course redesigns and the development of MOOCs (massive open online courses), and working as an instructional designer in the development of online courses.

In my ten years in English as a Foreign Language, I navigated culture shock (and reverse culture shock); interacted daily with people from other countries; intentionally worked to establish a shared, learned culture within my classroom; and returned again and again to the tools of anthropology and qualitative research to understand the classroom context and the student experience. In some way, I was doing a bit of anthropology every day. Not in the same way I would have if I’d done that PhD, but still finding the same anthropological principles bubbling up to inform both my approach and my understanding.

But it’s only been in these last couple of years—working with faculty across disciplines and, more so, working in an office environment with staff from different disciplines—that it’s really hit me how important anthropology is in my work.

It’s not about the degree. Or the job title. It’s about the skills and the worldview that you bring. It is the unique work that you can do because of your background in anthropology.

Let me give a few examples. At Georgetown, we’ve been trying to create a culture shift with faculty and technology—trying to encourage them to explore and experiment with technology in order to develop innovative, potentially more effective approaches to teaching and learning. As one small piece of this, we are encouraging faculty to try out some technologies we’re piloting, for instance a video annotation tool. We bought a license for the tool, made it available, wrote up some support documentation; we’re filming a little trailer video. But whether I think about this as adoption of one new tool or as one small bit of a culture shift, here is the truth that rises up: culture is learned, culture is shared, and personal interaction is the primary mode for learning and sharing. (Sound familiar?) Which leaves me with the question: where in our approach is the interaction happening? And what am I going to do about it?

Yesterday, a program administrator on campus came in for the video shoot for the trailer. Our media team is great; they’ve done dozens of this type of thing. They didn’t need me there to get the video done. But here’s what I found out by listening, observing, and then, in those few wrap up minutes, asking a few questions: their implementation of the tool in online courses flopped…but in talking about what students wanted instead, there might be an alternative and highly effective way to implement the tool; I learned about a professor who tried the tool a couple years ago, dropped it because one feature didn’t work well then, and hasn’t tried it again since; and I learned about another department that could really use some support but are unlikely to ask for it. Suddenly, by choosing to listen, I’ve laid the groundwork for a number of interactions, and they’ll likely lead to other interactions, and given time and effort, I will have come to both know a part of the whole and—stepping perhaps a bit away from the participant-observer and into the activist role—I will have come to help transform this community.

We also have our own little subculture at CNDLS. We have our own realms of insider and outsider knowledge, our own norms and ways of showing our belonging, and our myths—and here I mean myths as our fundamental truths: learning is at the center of everything we do; decision-making happens in dialogue; and innovation is something to strive for. But the curious thing about work cultures is how fast the cast of characters change as staff leave and new hires onboard. As these individuals change, do the myths hold as truths…or do they become empty narrative, with other, new truths emerging? What role do I have…do we have, as members of a community and as anthropologists, to sustain our truths? What am I going to do about it?

Starting to see a theme? ;)

So at CNDLS, another area we help foster at Georgetown is the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SoTL). Basically, this is the idea of teachers across a variety of disciplines doing research about teaching and learning. Which is a fantastic idea…and a bit problematic. Though faculty are experts and skilled researchers in their own fields, they often pore over texts and numbers; they aren’t necessary experienced researchers with human subjects. And then on top of that, there’s a strong bias in academia toward quantitative research. And then on top of that, classroom research is simply logistically difficult.

So what often ends up happening both at Georgetown and across the educational research spectrum are projects focused on quantitative measures with small numbers of participants and, unfortunately, claims of broad implications. In other words, something quite counter to ethnography, with its deep description, grounded analysis, and contextualized implications.

What has emerged over the last maybe twenty years, is a shift in some fields toward mixed methods—some qualitative and quantitative. On the positive side, a mixed-method approach can help make research both more feasible and more persuasive. On the down side, the term “ethnography” is often usurped to mean any kind of interviews. Unless someone has studied anthropology, read a full ethnography, and been transformed by it, it’s hard to convey the power of ethnography. And in any case, it’s not realistic (and I suppose not desirable ;)) to turn everyone into anthropologists. Instead, I ask faculty to describe their classrooms and their students; I listen to their deep description, and I value it. I question what the numbers mean, what the test measures, what aspect of performance the numbers represent, and how that does or doesn’t relate to learning. And I suggest alternative ways they might structure the study or additional data that might inform the results. That’s what I’m doing about it.

What are you going to do about it?

You certainly could go on and become an anthropologist or an archaeologist or a linguist or an ethnomusicologist. Or you could be a teacher or a researcher or an instructional technologist or an instructional designer or a project manager. Or you could choose a whole other career entirely. Whatever you choose will have room for anthropology. And anyway, in the way that something learned cannot be unlearned, anthropology is likely to stalk you your entire life.

You’ll be having a conversation with a colleague and that piece of your brain will fire: “ethnocentrism alert.” Or you’ll see colleagues come and go, see them promoted or not, see who gets burdened by work and what earns prestige, and you’ll be like “yeah, the feminization of poverty really sucks.” Or, on a more positive note, you’ll be the one saying “hold on, can we back up a sec?” and asking good questions no one else is asking. As long as you are a human working among humans, anthropology will rise up to meet your work.

Because anthropology is not just a discipline, a degree, or a career field. It is a practice.

So let me tell you the hardest thing about practicing anthropology: …wait, wait, wait, first, let me set the context, that—at least in my experience—very, very few people know what anthropology is or appreciate it, and if they don’t appreciate it, they don’t want you to do it because it’s time consuming and complex and hard to measure. So here’s the hardest thing about practicing anthropology: recognizing for yourself the skills that you have because of your practice of anthropology, valuing those skills, and helping others to value them, too.

Here are just a few of your skills: You understand the importance of context. You know how to gather systematic observations and how to analyze those observations separate from your internal dialogue. You look for what is hiding in plain sight. You articulate norms and taboos. You question what aspects of culture—and whose culture—are in play.

Don’t write that in a cover letter.

But recognize that you do have skills, important skills, that a lot of people don’t have. And then think about how those skills would be useful and unique in whatever job you are applying for. And put that in your cover letter.

And then once you get your job and you’re moving up the career ladder, go back and read your cover letter. Because every day in your work, you will likely feel the pressure to conform, to think like everyone else, to agree when everyone agrees, to see things the same way everyone sees them.

Instead, keep approaching the unfamiliar. Keep seeking ways to be comfortable amidst the uncomfortable, and uncomfortable within the comfortable.

Let anthropology stalk you. Let it pull you into a unique space between worlds—because from that unique space, you can do unique, valuable work.


Remarks at the Lambda Alpha Honor Society Induction Ceremony
Washington College
March 1, 2017
By: Jennifer Lubkin Chávez