Anthropology lecture series gets graduate students out of their comfort zones

March 12, 2014 by Jessica Lewis - A&S News

What do ethical consumerism, Madagascar, and humanitarian aid have in common? They’re all topics tackled by anthropologists in a unique new public lecture series at the University of Toronto called Got Anthropology?

But what makes the series unique is the fact that the speakers – all graduate students in anthropology – aren’t lecturing about their own, specialized research. Instead they’re stepping outside their comfort zone to craft a talk on a related topic, drawing on personal interests as well as experiences and observations gleaned while working at home and abroad.

“Getting graduate students to speak on a topic other than what they’re researching every day is what makes for great learning and community experiences,” says organizer and anthropology graduate student Kim Valenta. “It’s a really important professional development skill to be able to explain difficult concepts in a way that non-specialists can engage with. It’s something we all have to do if we continue on in academia.

“We need all of this broad background for doing what we do, we have all of this training, so it’s great to be able to use that to construct something around a bigger idea in an academically or scientifically responsible way.”

Valenta was inspired to create the general interest series after she and a group of friends attended an event and found themselves frustrated by the way ideas were presented in that lecture. She put out a call for topics of discussion and followed it with a call for students interested in addressing them.The response from other graduate students was extremely positive, Valenta said. Jessica Davidson, for example, worked as a journalist and marketing professional before turning to anthropology – and she brought those experiences to bear when she spoke about ethical consumerism.

“These topics are a little more accessible and stimulate great ideas and debates,”says Davidson, whose academic work focuses on Asian media.

Travis Steffens gave a lecture in January on the dire situation of Madagascar – one of the poorest countries in the world. Having travelled there to study primate conservation biology, Steffens drew on his first-hand experiences from his time in the wild.

“People are keen to learn about this unique and strange place,” he says. “Got Anthropology? gives audiences access to academic information in an entertaining and educational way.”

Vivian Solana, a social anthropologist, once spent 15 months living in a refugee camp in Algeria. Drawing on that experience, she spoke about how humanitarian aid requires infiltration into the social dynamics at play in a community.

“My time trying to understand what it would be like to be a Saharawi refugee offers a perspective that can inform our knowledge of humanitarianism,” she says.

Valenta also wanted to help the anthropology department engage with Toronto.

“We want Torontonians who otherwise may not visit the University of Toronto to feel that they can engage with our department and the research that’s being done here,” she says. “We have a responsibility to be available to open the doors and give back in that way.”

Keaton Evans, a director and producer, has attended every lecture so far, and has enjoyed the fresh perspectives.

“The series breaks down walls that usually stood before people like myself, who are interested in science but have no one to communicate with about it,” he says. “It allows me to sit in a room which, more often than not, is a 50/50 split of people who work in science and those of us who are ‘laypersons.’ I believe that we can gain the most knowledge in a conversational setting, and this is it.”

The series takes place on the second-last Wednesday of every month and includes a lecture and a round of Q & A. In the future, Got Anthropology? hopes to include department tours showcasing their research. Got Anthropology? is supported by the Department of Anthropology, and the Dean’s Student Initiative Fund, a program that provides financial support for student initiatives that aspire to create dialogue and foster a greater sense of community through special events, lectures, or other forms of community engagement.