The question is not that Boas was wrong about culture. It is rather that he told anthropologists that they are the only ones who are right.
This quote is from the conclusion to the penultimate chapter of Bauman and Briggs’ award-winning book Voices of Modernity. The book employs a Foucauldian genealogical approach to trace the development of folklore studies from its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment, through its development under German Romanticism, ending up with Boas and the birth of anthropology. In doing so the book focuses on a number of interrelated ideas about culture, language, and modernity as well as methodological issues in the creation of texts from oral traditions. When they awarded the book with the Edward Sapir Book Prize the Society for Linguistic Anthropology wrote:
Bauman and Briggs argue that contemporary efforts to make schemes of social inequality based on race, gender, class and nationality seem compelling and legitimate, rely on deeply rooted ideas about language and tradition. Showing how critics of modernity unwittingly reproduce these foundational fictions, they suggest new strategies for challenging the undemocratic influence of these voices of modernity.
While these themes run throughout their book, they sometimes seem to have only historical importance. After all, scholars like Herder or the Grimm brothers are associated with the rise of nationalism and so there doesn’t seem much that is “unwitting” in their reproduction of these ideologies. It is only in the penultimate chapter on Boas, a scholar known for his critiques of racism and nationalism, that the relevance of these earlier scholars (and the importance of the genealogical method) really becomes clear to the reader. In this genealogy Boas is “ego,” but before this chapter he has been absent from the story.
That Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave an interview in Chinese was big news this week. You can see the start of the interview here:
As you can hear, Zuckerberg’s performance was greeted with “repeated cheers and applause by the assembled students and faculty members.” I don’t want to pick apart Zuckerberg’s Chinese – he only started learning a few years ago, but still did better than some people I know who have lived in Taiwan for over a decade. Nor do I want to focus on the mixed reactions he got on the internet later on. Rather, I want to engage in a thought experiment. Can you imagine a Western audience cheering and applauding a Chinese CEO for speaking in English?
Pierre Bourdieu uses the term “strategy of condescension”1 to refer to the “act of symbolically negating” the power relationship between two languages. Continue reading →
In 2012 I wrote a post, Seven Ways to Talk to a White Man in which I talked about how Taiwanese react to seeing a foreign-looking person speak Chinese. Here is a funny video from Japan which dramatizes the scenario I described as “Look at the Asian”:
In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.
Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t? Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. Continue reading →
In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar BrenéBrown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy. According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising. In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world. This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.
In part six eight of this series1 I complained about how Taiwanese indigenous languages are being taught more like dead languages than living ones.
This point was really hit home to me when I was discussing with another student that I would like to have better communicative competence. It took a long time for me to explain what I meant, and it slowly dawned on me that other students really had no expectation of being able to use the language in such a way.
So I was very happy that the Hualien Tribal College and the College of Indigenous Studies at NDHU were able to arrange for two Maori language activists, Hana O’Regan [PDF] and Megan Grace, both affiliated with the center for Māori and Pasifika studies at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, to come to Hualien and share their thoughts and experiences. Hana and Megan have a very different approach to language revitalization – one which emphasizes building a living language. For this reason the focus of their work is in homes, not (just) in the classroom.
Above is a picture of my student ID from the “Hualien Tribal College.” Actually the official English name on their web page is “Hualien Indigenous Community College” which sounds better to my anthropological ears. Indigenous Community Colleges in Taiwan are not degree granting institutions. Courses tend to be short-term classes focused on indigenous culture, although they offer subjects like documentary filmmaking to help students learn to document their own culture. I’ve enrolled in an eight week course in the Amis language. (At the same time I’m continuing to audit indigenous language classes at my own university.)
While these classes have been great for my research, I still don’t feel I’ve made much progress with my language skills. Unlike DJ, who recently spent half a year living in a village with a large number of old people who still are able to speak Amis, I spend most of my time with young students who have very little competence. But more than that, I’ve come to realize that my research focus on official language revitalization efforts is actually something of a handicap when it comes to language learning. This is what I wanted to write about today.
In an old New York Times essay a journalist commemorated the Japanese elevator girl’s voice as being especially piercing and high pitched. Other Americans have similarly made fun of this feminized service occupation, describing it as a particularly extraneous and vacuous job. Japan’s first elevator girls appeared in 1929, when the newly reopened Ueno branch of Matsuzakaya Department Store promoted novel features such as air conditioning, its own post office, and eight elevators operated by women. Since then elevator girls have been of great cultural interest, appearing in numerous comics, a TV drama series, films, Hello Kitty incarnations, novels and in other media. She was a big hit in this McDonald’s commercial from 2006, in which she munches a burger with one hand while preventing a passenger from boarding by pushing the close button with her other hand. The words “I want to eat now” appear on the screen.
[Unfortunately, embedding is disabled for this video, if anyone knows of a different version we can use, please let us know in the comments. -the editors]
I want to take the elevator girl seriously as part of a larger effort to reclaim women’s cultural history. In a forthcoming book chapter I track the history and representation of this feminized occupation, as well as the training and experiences of contemporary elevator girls. For example, the high-pitched voice that so irritates foreigners is intentionally fake. As part of their training elevator girls practice speaking in a crafted vocal performance in order to alert customers that they are not available for chatting up: they are on duty in their professional roles. The pre-determined announcements, delivered in the Tokyo-based “standard” dialect, also allow women from diverse regional and class backgrounds an opportunity to work in elegant surroundings in a desired urban location. The work and the uniform strip elevator girls of individuality, thus allowing the observer to imagine their own fantasies about these women (not surprisingly, elevator girls figure prominently in fantasy media and pornography). But for the elevator girl herself, the vulnerability she might experience working in such a public service job is protected by the uniform and scripted speech.
I was teaching a course on writing systems in Chicago, and funding from a small grant allowed me to limit the class size. So we loaded into a van and visited museums in the area that house unique script artifacts. I also arranged for guest scholars and curators to talk to us about specific writing systems. One place on our itinerary was a museum at the University of Chicago, were we admired some rare Chinese “oracle bones.” These are bovine scapulae and tortoise plastrons carved with the earliest forms of Chinese writing.
The graduate student curator assigned to talk to us about the oracle bones was smart and conscientious. When asked “Doesn’t the Field Museum have any of these?” he sneered, “Oh no, those are ridiculous fakes,” which for me was the most interesting thing he said. What he didn’t know about is my quest to find appropriated and pseudo writing. The counterfeit oracle bones I eventually photographed at the Field Museum of Natural History are now among my prized items. My students have also contributed great finds to my growing collection: a pair of Wisconsin socks woven with fabricated Egyptian hieroglyphics (lots of birds!), a coin purse with gibberish Chinese characters embroidered on it, and a gorgeous azure silk-screened T-Shirt with an upside down Japanese poem. Continue reading →
Chinese is a hard language to learn, and I’m the first to admit that I have a long way still to go. But for the past six years I’ve been teaching in Chinese and so I’ve achieved a certain degree of fluency even if nobody who spoke to me for more than five minutes on the phone would mistake me for a native speaker. In the United States there is a general assumption that everyone should and can learn to be a fluent English speaker, no matter where they are from. People are sometimes even fired for not speaking English at work [also see this]. But in Taiwan it is the opposite, there is an assumption that nobody who isn’t ethnically Chinese can learn to speak the language. For this reason, when someone sees a white person walk into a store or restaurant the first assumption is that there will be a problem communicating with you.
Of course, this happens in the US as well. I once read of a study where different groups of students were played the same audio lecture but with different photographs of the supposed speaker. When the photograph was of an Asian person the students performed worse on the test, actually retaining/understanding less of the lecture than when the photograph was of a white person. I don’t know if this study has been replicated, but I do think that expectations of communication problems are a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in reduced comprehension. This problem is compounded in a society like Taiwan which has relatively few non-Asian immigrants. But not everyone responds to a foreigner in the same way, and over the years I’ve compiled a mental inventory of the various ways in which people respond to the challenge of having to talk to a foreigner. What follows is a list of seven ways strangers react when they have to talk to me.
First, there’s “foreigner panic” which is often evidenced when dealing with service people who fear having to use English in order to do their job. I’ve seen salesgirls hide behind coworkers who speak better English. I’ve had people standing right next to me turn around as if looking for signs of intelligent life because the very idea that they might be able to talk directly to me never crossed their mind. And I’ve seen people practically bang their heads on the ground apologizing for not speaking better English. Fortunately, a few words in Chinese, no matter how badly pronounced, is usually enough to calm the panic and establish a more routine service encounter (when dealing with young women, this is usually only after some giggling and additional apologies). Continue reading →
[This is the 6th installment in an ongoing series on learning an endangered language. This post also fits in our “Tools We Use” series.]
As described in my last post, listening to lots of audio in the target language is a key part of my approach to language learning. For that reason I needed a good field recorder app for my iPhone. I spent a lot of time and (because you can’t demo most apps without buying them) money searching for a workflow which would let me record, edit, and listen to audio within the same application. I wanted it all in one application because I find that I sometimes want to go back and re-edit a file. It is also currently difficult to send files to iTunes without going through the desktop. In the end, I found a wonderful app that did exactly what I wanted: FiRe2 Field Recorder.
Then he dived into Russian, Italian, Persian, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi, Ojibwe, Pashto, Turkish, Hausa, Kurdish, Yiddish, Dutch, Croatian and German, teaching himself mostly from grammar books and flash card applications on his iPhone. This in addition to a more formal study of French, Latin and Mandarin at the Dalton School, where he is a sophomore.
I suspect some people are wired differently, like this RadioLab episode about a ragtime musician who can play four concerts in his head at the same time and keep track of what any instrument in each of the four orchestras is playing at any given time.
This is a post about language learning for the rest of us. But first, a little throat clearing. While I have read a few books summarizing contemporary research on language learning, I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject. That means I make some scientific claims without backing them up. Caveat emptor. Continue reading →
I recently applied for “academic promotion” from Assistant to Associate Professor. I’m still awaiting the results, but I wanted to share part of that process with you: the ubiquitous “statement of teaching philosophy.” As this is something many people also struggle with in job applications, I thought I’d talk a little about the genre and share my own statement in full. Sharing my statement takes a little guts, as I really struggled to write an honest statement as opposed to the kind of jargon and cliché ridden statements I’ve seen when sitting on the other side of a job search committee, or when looking for sample documents on the web. (Rex sent me this page on writing such documents and the “Rubric for Statements of Teaching Philosophy” included there is one of the few genuinely helpful documents I found.)
Why is this statement so hard to write? Well, for one thing, I think it makes us painfully aware of the gap between our teaching ideals and our actual classroom practices. We can talk all we want about various teaching philosophies, but much of what most teachers do in the classroom is essentially the same. Even Mike Wesch, who wrote here about his theory of anti-teaching, has more recently written about “why good classes fail“:
In fact, the few truly fantastic classes I have stumbled into were just as likely to be “sage on the stage” lectures as they were to be based on more participatory methods. And the disheartening reality has been that a really bad lecture doesn’t fail as badly as a really poorly executed participatory class. Many of these professors seem to do everything “right.” They ask their students questions, pause and let them discuss with their neighbors, show YouTube videos that relate to their own experience, and invite discussion. But disinterest and disengagement still reign. Why?
I appreciate Wesch’s thoughts on this, and I strongly recommend reading the whole piece. (And look forward to his forthcoming book on teaching.) There is also an article about his re-think in the Chronicle. I mention it because it gives me comfort in the more modest approach I’ve taken in my own statement of teaching philosophy. I talk, for instance, about making my goals explicit. This may not seem like much, but in practice I’ve found that it is very difficult to do well and also very helpful to students when done properly. It isn’t the kind of thing that gets one written up in the Chronicle, but it is something I’ve thought long and hard about. It isn’t just about writing a good syllabus, but about spending time in class teaching one’s expectations and the reasons behind them. (In my case we actually created a whole new course to accomplish this goal.)
I hope my document is useful for others working on articulating their own teaching philosophy. I also think it highlights some of the unique challenges I face teaching here in Taiwan and might be interesting even for those not planning on writing such a statement anytime soon.
If I’ve been quiet lately it is because most of my free time has been devoted to trying to learn Amis (also known as Pangcah) one of the Austronesian languages still spoken in Taiwan. I’ve been reluctant to write about it because I’m at that initial stage where I am completely tongue tied and unable to speak a word if anyone actually tries to engage me in a conversation. I’m a little embarrassed to be writing about this again, because I started writing about it in 2009 and haven’t made much progress since then.
Looking back at my previous posts, I realize there is much I never wrote about. So in a series of future posts I hope to write more about (1) my thoughts about language learning in general, (2) specific thoughts on strategies for learning an endangered language, (3) iOS tools for language study and (4) some of the themes of my research relating to the role that language preservation efforts play in the construction of indigenous identity in Taiwan. I hope that this time I get a little further than I did in 2009. In the meantime, leave a comment if you have any thoughts of your own, or specific questions you’d like me to address in future posts.