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Anthropology professor uses real world problems to prove practicality of field

October 31, 2013 at 6:11 am

Jennifer Esperanza 

From consulting for non-governmental organizations to investigating crime scenes, anthropologists do a lot of work that many people don’t even know about, according to Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jennifer Esperanza.

At a time when some are calling into question the practicality of an anthropology degree (think Florida Governor Rick Scott’s 2011 criticisms of the field), Esperanza is incorporating real world problems into her classes to prove the applicability of anthropology.

“People think of Indiana Jones or that we go off into the jungle to do exotic things,” Esperanza says of the public perception of anthropology. “I’m trying to find ways to create these real world scenarios and to ask students to approach them like an anthropologist and to find solutions.”

In her intro class, for example, she gives her students the fictional scenario of 75 refugees from Burma arriving in Beloit in a month and asks them to design a resettlement program for them. With a fictional budget, the students must figure out the refugees’ needs and what kinds of resources Beloit offers along with how to help someone who can’t speak English apply for a job and how to prepare these people from tropical Southeast Asia for a cold Wisconsin winter.

In another class, this semester’s Ethnographic Methods, students are studying various places and cultures related to Beloit College, such as the theatre shop, a fraternity, and the Stateline Literacy Council, in order to learn how to understand the problems and tensions of a community.

Other students last year reviewed a real case involving a brother and sister from El Salvador who sought political asylum in the United States. The assignment, which involved investigating the details and writing an executive summary, was inspired by a Beloit anthropology graduate whose job is to read political asylum applications and to help decide which ones should be represented.  

“Anthropologists need to do a better job at selling themselves, and I’m doing it here in terms of all these assignments,” Esperanza says. “I tell students don’t ever just say you’re doing this for class. You’re building things into a real portfolio. It’s literally doing the liberal arts in practice and getting students to realize that.”