Undergraduates; The Backbone Of Anthropology

Anthroplogy professors Dr. Matejowsky and Dr. Reyes-Foster write articles on a periodic basis for Anthropology News, which is the official publication from the American Anthropological Association.  This is the latest article published in January 2014.  The article shows the importance of focusing on our undergraduate students to keep the Anthropology field of study alive.

In our daily dealings with college students at the University of Central Florida (UCF) — the nation’s second largest university with some 60,000 enrolled students — we often encounter undergraduates who have developed an intense passion for anthropology, but are still wary about selecting it as a major.  This hesitation is probably influenced as much by concerns over skyrocketing student debt as it is by recent swipes at the profession.  It is easy to imagine well-intentioned parents and friends advising students to steer clear of anthropology, out of fear that their long-term career prospects will amount to nothing more than a one-way ticket to flipping burgers.

Against this backdrop, it seems few anthropologists are actively discussing the particular importance of undergraduate education within the discipline.  All too often, it appears our concerted investment in students at large universities is more narrowly focused at the graduate level.  Undergraduates take a backseat as we help prepare and train cohorts of graduate students for fieldwork and their post-graduate career paths.  However understandable this emphasis may be, we can and should do more to nurture our undergraduates.

Why focus on undergraduates? Many recent PhD’s are facing dismal job prospects, and there is an increased call in the profession and related fields against producing more anthropology advanced degrees in an environment in which they are unlikely to secure viable academic employment.  This is certainly an important conversation.  Nevertheless, the truth of the matter is that anthropology departments across the country survive in large part because of their undergraduate programs.  When undergraduate enrollment goes down, departments suffer.  In this way, undergraduates serve as the lifeblood of most academic departments, both intellectually and logistically speaking.  Credit hours generated by large undergraduate courses effectively fund departmental budgets, allowing for flourishing graduate programs and faculty scholarship. Beyond this, thriving undergraduate programs drive the creation of new full-time faculty lines, further strengthening the intellectual and pedagogical integrity of departments and colleges.

Although some may argue that large undergraduate programs lead to increase in the exploitation of cheap adjunct labor, we are hopeful that as the adjunct crisis in US universities receives increased attention, more universities will be compelled to follow the models set out by our department at UCF and others whereby the vast majority of undergraduate courses (in our department, 35 of 37 courses offered in the fall 2013 semester) are taught by full-time, benefits-earning instructors, lecturers or tenured and tenure-earning faculty.  This approach ensures that students receive instruction from seasoned, fairly compensated faculty who are not overburdened with excessive teaching loads across multiple institutions.

Our intentions with this monthly contribution are to offer both practical advice and encouragement to undergraduate anthropology majors or those on the fence about majoring in anthropology.  Dispelling misconceptions that portray anthropology as an impractical degree, we aim to offer realistic advice for undergraduates considering anthropology as a college major.  Students can pursue their intellectual interests, study what they enjoy, and still find viable employment after graduation provided they create strong resumes and cultivate good connections early on in their collegiate journeys.  We should emphasize that this is not strictly an advice column for undergraduate students intent on pursuing advanced degrees and careers as professional anthropologists, but is inclusive of students who wish to enter the job market after they complete their Bachelor’s degree.

Although some of the advice we offer (eg, learn a foreign language or find a mentor) may seem obvious or basic to some, our experience teaching at UCF, a large public university, has shown us that many students, particularly first generation college students, have never been exposed to this kind of advice.  Over the next twelve months, we will highlight specific actions that anthropology undergraduates can take while still in school to prepare for the so-called real world. Students can pursue careers outside of our field while remaining critically engaged, proactive, holistic, progressive and committed to challenging preconceived notions and assumptions about the world –skills that embody the ethos of anthropology.

To read the original article, click here.

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