How to be an Anthropologist

I started this blog after a student asked how she could be an anthropologist. I stuttered and while the obvious answer fell from my lips, the cogs in my mind began to turn. I told the student that she should start by taking some anthropology courses. Then, if she enjoyed them, I told her to take a field school in the sub-discipline of her choice and if that didn’t scare her off, then she should go full steam ahead toward a doctoral degree.

Yet, that was not the path I was on. I am an anthropologist. However, you will more likely find me hammering away on a keyboard writing PHP these days than doing anything that most people would call anthropology. When I was 18, I declared my major in anthropology and started the express train toward a doctoral degree. I was going to be an archaeologist, nay an Egyptologist! However, the circumstance of life was that I was not well-connected, I was not rich and I wasn’t really a genius. So, after some self-reflection, I decided that it was really only the mummies I liked about Egyptology anyway and set a course for becoming a bioarchaeologist. I took out loans. I worked more hours than was healthy. I practically moved into the archaeology lab. Everything was going according to plan.

That plan got derailed after my undergraduate advisor, archaeological mentor, and later friend, did a bit too well at teaching me cultural anthropology theory. She planted seeds in me that, by half way through my first semester of my master’s program, developed into an intense need to study cultural anthropology. I switched graduate advisors and began planning my ethnographic thesis.

I got married.

I got poor.

I got a full-time job.

When I tell people that I went to school for anthropology, the response is usually, “Oh.  What can you do with that?” I have found that if you are creative you can do anything. If you are not, well, you should have gone into a different program of study. Luckily, I am creative. So, I convinced a bunch of academic librarians that my anthropological background and my remedial knowledge of web design qualified me to be a web designer. They hired me.

While working as a web designer and reference library associate full-time, I managed to do my fieldwork and write a thesis. I only managed it because I have a very understanding and supportive husband. It took me three years. During those three years,

I applied to doctoral programs.

I didn’t get in.

I applied again to doctoral programs.

I didn’t get in.

I was still poor.

However, when I finished, I was proud of what I produced. It didn’t matter to me that it took me so long and that I failed to get into doctoral programs. My advisor and thesis committee liked my work. My mom liked it. I had accomplished something. This was about the time that I finally started to feel like an anthropologist.

I got a new job.

I moved to another state and got a job that paid more than the one before it. I felt like an anthropologist. So, obviously, I got a job as an anthropologist, right?  No. Well, not in the way you would think. I am now a web designer for a community college. I get to teach anthropology part-time. Yet, I use my anthropology just as much while creating web designs as I do when I am lecturing. During those three years when I was doing my master’s thesis fieldwork and writing, anthropology became the way I saw the world. Now, I can’t approach a problem or a situation without being an anthropologist. To redesign our college website, I spent time interviewing students, observing them, and generally learning what the college’s website meant and how it was used. I created navigation usability tests to observe how they connected information with words and symbols and how they organized information about the college.

I still plan on going back to school and getting my doctorate. However, being an anthropologist has come to mean something more to me than just going to school and obtaining degrees. Being an anthropologist is about perspective and the methods we use to understand the stimuli we come in contact with. When that student asked how she could be anthropologist, what I was really thinking about was how my own plan to become an anthropologist had taken such unplanned turns and how in many ways that has made me a better anthropologist. Today, I look back at my doctoral applications and I can see what the departments who rejected me must have seen. I wasn’t yet an anthropologist. I was a  very earnest wannabe. I was unfocused. I was not ready.

I still don’t think I am ready. But, not because I am not an anthropologist. I am not ready because I am focusing. I am exploring my interests, even those, such as web design, that I thought I was only doing for the money. That is what brings me here.  This blog is my manifesto. This is my public declaration of my intentions, my motives and my thoughts along the way. This is how I plan to be an anthropologist.

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