So… What do you do?

by jwolowic ~ April 26th, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized.

An anthropologist walks into a coffee shop to write a paper.

Standing in line she hears the word ethnography.  One of the university student baristas says, “When I think of ethnography I think of khaki and pith helmets.  Those guys surrounded by the Natives.”

It’s the anthropologist’s turn to order caffeine.  ”A double espresso please.  And are talking about ethnography?  I’m an anthropologist.”

Both the barista jaws drop. The chit chat in the cafe quiets. They were expecting a pith helmet, not my ratty culture jamming sweatshirt.

“So… what do you do?” A caffeine addict at the end of the line asks.

The moment of opportunity! Here academics need to take a page from the film industry.  Can you in 3 sentences or less explain what you do in terms that the average person will understand AND be interested in.  How good is your pitch?”

“I explore how we make and watch documentary films and how films affect our understandings of the world.  Then I think about how you can apply making and watching films towards exploring the experiences of Aboriginal youth.”

Now, I get to cheat a little.  You mention film and in general everyone says “cool!”  They can relate to it.  But I easily could have gone into the theory, into the jargon, and tossed out references that easily roll off my tongue.  Time-image, collaborative participatory ethnography, post-structural deconstruction of Aboriginal discourse,identity,  political economic structures, reception theory, power-knowledge,  resiliency, affect and idea…but fortunately I hadn’t received that double espresso yet.

The pitch worked.  What followed for the next ten minutes was a public discussion of anthropology.

“I thought anthropologists just looked at… like stuff from the past.”Another caffeine addict interjects. “They can but they seek to understand people from every perspective” and I gave a 30 second summary of the squabbling siblings of anthropologies 4 fields and how they work together.  ”So you’ve read Mauss, I had to read that.” The barista asked. “Yup, the world is all about reciprocity!” “Who? What?” as a man peaks above a newspaper.  A minute later the entire coffee shop knew why they give Christmas presents. The conversation drifted into the basics of what anthropologists explore and a more detailed summary of my own projects. I was able to start throwing out and explaining a few key pieces of academic jargon and they stayed with me. I ended up getting handshakes from a couple customers and my coffee for free!

Anthropologists exist at an interesting intersection in the knowledge production industry.  While most scientists bring the real world into the controlled environment of the lab, our field is based on escaping the isolated ivory tower to participate in the real world.  This provides us infinite opportunities to share our ideas with real people outside.  But when we become so absorbed in talking with people who know the same jargon and theory, can we translate these ideas in the moment we’re forced to explain what we do in terms they understand? We need to practice talking in two different languages so we can work to expand the vocabularies and understandings of those outside academia.

When we can, when we effectively explain what we do to strangers we get to watch people walk away with a new understanding of their relationships with society. That was one awesome double espresso!

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