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Anthropology professor uses real world problems to prove practicality of field

Thursday, October 31, 2013

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at dickinsonh@beloit.edu or 608-363-2849

From consulting for NGOs to investigating crime scenes, anthropologists do a lot of work that many people don’t even know about, according to Associate Anthropology Professor 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 said 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 said. “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.”

SOURCE: Jennifer Esperanza is an associate professor of anthropology who has taught at Beloit since 2008. She has a geographic interest in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore), and her research is driven by two main interests: globalization and consumption. Esperanza, who earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles, can serve as a media resource on topics including language and culture/linguistics, the political economy, consumerism/the consumer society, and food activism (the slow food movement and community gardening).

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