Letter from the Chair: Fall 2018
We’re two weeks in. You’ve survived the gauntlet of orientation events for students and faculty; your Canvas sites are in working order; you’ve resisted the temptation to take too many courses; and first encounters with your professors, or your students, have convinced you that it’s time to say goodbye to summer and embrace the glorious grind of thinking and doing anthropology at Michigan. It is glorious because the anthropology we make is unrivalled in its quality, its novelty, and the challenges it poses to the discipline. It is grind-like because no discipline is made without friction, concerted effort, and sweat. Knowing how important (and how hard) it is to balance these vital aspects of our work is what gives the “back to school” vibe its peculiar feel.
The work we do is both artisanal and industrial. This semester, we will teach anthropology to 2,543 students in 65 courses. ANTHRCUL 101, our largest class, is filled to capacity at 748 students, and enrollments are trending up across our undergrad curriculum. We are offering 8 new courses this term, among them an archaeology field school (ANTHRARC 482) taught by visiting MSU lecturer Blair Zaid, in which 11 undergrads will dig and deliberate at historic Gordon Hall in Dexter. Our graduate students, meanwhile, will join seminars on foundational theory, research methods, regional scholarship, and grant-writing; they will also do advanced lab work, participate in dissertation-writing workshops, and design targeted readings courses that equip them for highly specialized fieldwork. Our teaching culture is vibrant, and I’m happy to see that a growing number of our courses enlist undergrads in original research – e.g., on daily water usage in low-income households in Mexico City (ANTHRCUL 458); on molecular anthropology, primate conservation, and paleontology (ANTHRBIO 471); and on the diverse topics chosen by our 15 senior thesis writers, whose work, if history repeats, will win an outsize share of the university’s annual thesis awards. We now have 140 undergrad majors and 58 minors. Our graduate program has 133 students, 39 of whom will serve as GSIs this term.
The work we do is collective, and I am always delighted to welcome new hands. Melissa Burch (Assistant Professor, Sociocultural) is our most recent addition to the tenure track. She studies race, incarceration, background checks, and discriminatory hiring in the U.S. Burch’s debut course, “Anthropology of Crime, Criminalization, and Punishment” (ANTHRCUL 356), is overflowing. Joseph Feldblum, postdoctoral fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows, studies competition and cooperation among chimpanzees and will augment our teaching strength in primatology. Liz Berger, postdoctoral fellow at the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, specializes in paleopathology in ancient China; she will teach osteology to our bio students. We have two visiting scholars: Rita Elena Zamora (Professor, Catholic University of Campinas, Brazil), who specializes in the translation of ethnographic narratives; and Laurent Berger (Lecturer, EHESS, France), who studies state formation, kinship, and globalization in Madagascar. We will host three visiting graduate students as well: Tiffany Cain (University of Pennsylvania), sponsored by Jason De Leon, does historical archaeology of violent conflict; Mohammad Mansy (Helwan University, Cairo), sponsored by Yasmin Moll, studies the translation and subtitling of Islamic TV programs between Arabic and English; Syed Abdul Akbar Shah (Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad), sponsored by Matt Hull, analyzes bureaucratic corruption in Pakistan. Finally, we welcome 15 new grad students – 11 in Anthropology, 2 in Anthro/Social Work, 2 in Anthrohistory – who bring us energy and fascinating plans for research.
This is also a year of notable departures. Carla Sinopoli (Professor of Anthropology and Curator in the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology) retired in WIN 2018 after 22 exemplary years at Michigan; she enters our emeritus ranks while taking on her new role as Director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. Two of our most talented faculty, Jason De Leon (Associate Professor, Sociocultural) and Abby Bigham (Assistant Professor, Biological), will go to UCLA in Fall 2019. Adding to these losses, two of our sturdiest departmental pillars, John Mitani (Professor, Biological) and Judy Irvine (Professor, Linguistic), will retire in 2019. It will be impossible to replace such versatile intellectual resources, but the College has allowed us to pursue two searches for new assistant professors this year, one in biological anthropology and another in archaeology. Michigan Anthropology has always managed to find impressive new talent when our luminary faculty retire or relocate. Indeed, we are famous for doing it well. This year will be a test of our adaptability and discernment.
Amid these arrivals and departures, dozens of visiting and local speakers will grace our workshops, colloquia, brown bag series, and co-sponsored events in Fall 2018. One of these events caught my eye, and I would urge you to attend it, to see the creativity and keen intelligence of the work we do at Michigan. On October 26, Michael Lempert (Associate Professor, Linguistic) will convene a workshop on “Technosemiotic Mediation,” which considers human-machine interactions as they have evolved in medicine, science, governance, policing, and popular media. Do new media technologies replace the sloppiness of the hand and voice, or is something else happening when human bodies and mechanical recording devices interact? To make sense of this question, Lempert will team up with Matt Hull (Associate Professor, Sociocultural), Brian Larkin (Columbia), and Miyako Inoue (Stanford) to mix a rich analytical cocktail: “one part ling anth/semiotic anthropology; one part STS; one part media studies.” The approach is interdisciplinary. It will involve some heavy intellectual lifting done in closed sessions, but the workshop will end with a roundtable discussion open and accessible to wider audiences. Best of all, it will culminate in published work enlivened by the distinct venues and audiences that have shaped the project. It is engaged, timely work, and it is the kind of knowledge production many of us pursue, in the field, in the classroom, and in the world.
Welcome back to Anthropology at Michigan. This will be an exhilarating year.
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Chair
Department of Anthropology