Friday, September 30, 2011

From Stares to Shares: Taking Anthropology to the Web

All the preparation, the great lecture, connecting the anthropology article, contemporary research, a news report, a political perspective. And then just stares, interspersed with furtive texting. Ah, the joys of teaching.

As I’ve moved toward an online anthropology presence, it is encouraging to see some of the same material go from stares to social media shares. I still learn a great deal from listening to and interacting with students, and even a roomful of stares can be a learning experience. However, promoting anthropology on a website or blog forges connections outside the routine research-and-teaching channels. As material is posted, it becomes available for searching, an archive to explore, revisit, and update.

Anthropologists do great work in the classroom and among colleagues. I have seen better analysis of current news items circulate through department e-mail than are available in the press. But we could do better at moving this material into a more public sphere.

That is what I have been trying to do on my blog, an evolving project which attempts to take the fundamental lessons of Anthropology 101 online. I have a long way to go, and it is a lot of work, especially now that I am back to classroom teaching and faculty governance. Blogs may not be for everyone, but the hope is to in a small way move anthropology from a certain secrecy and “disciplinary shyness” toward a greater role in public discourse. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes, anthropology’s “relevance will likely depend on the extent to which the discipline rids itself of some of its shyness and spells out its stakes for a wider audience” (Global Transformations, 2003:137).

Some things to consider for starting an online presence:

1)    Think about creating your own website. There are great blogging packages to get things started quickly, and these can also be ideal for creating online syllabi. Searching for a webhost, paying for it, and getting up-to-speed on a WordPress installation can be a steep learning curve. However, having your own website can help to focus the content and give you fine-tuned creative control.

My advice here is similar to a blog-post by James Mulvey on Inside Higher Ed titled “Expand Your Blog’s Reach,” which is worth reading through for perspective.

2)    Sell something. I admire those who keep their websites commerce-free, but anthropologists have been giving away too much for too long. As Andre Gingrich writes, anthropology has often paid too dearly for our conceptual imports, while practically giving away our exports: “Our imports were somewhat too expensive and our exports were far too cheap. . . . Our supermarkets and shops today should advise customers that the good products we have are valuable objects of interest and that their users should carefully read the anthropologist’s instructions and then pay the asking price” (2010:555, “Transitions: Notes on Sociocultural Anthropology’s Present and Its Transnational Potential”).

There is another issue here: if you don’t sell something, someone else will. I have seen respectable blog contributions get surrounded by dating-service ads. In some ways, by creating your own website and doing your own selling, you may be able to pre-empt such activities.

3)    Search engine optimization. Great content is wonderful, but look for ways to get your material indexed and appearing where you want it. I often search for content I know anthropologists have written, only to have a bunch of other stuff float to the top. Anthropology blogs seem notoriously bad at crafting links and references to highlight our best content. A short SEO tutorial can be quite helpful.

4)    Social media. Yes, these can take up a lot of time and spin a lot of fluff. But they can also provide important connections and portals. I have not taken the Twitter plunge, even as it does seem to be well-suited for research connections and quickly noting links. I am mostly on Facebook and starting to experiment with Google+. I am also eyeing YouTube, which is currently the second largest search engine in the world. If someone doing reviews of diecast toy cars can get 100,000 views (I admit it keeps my 4-year-old son entertained through breakfast), how about an analysis of the Nacirema?

5)    Support other blogs and promote their material. Thank you to Ryan Anderson and the anthropologies project, as well as all those great veteran anthropology bloggers and commenters! Adding comments and links can help build the community. Even if creating a blog or website is not for you, help edge anthropology into view.

For me, teaching has always been about taking my anthropology heroes and trying to translate their thoughts into contemporary relevance. About using anthropological analysis to tackle a pundit, news headline, or social issue. Hard-hitting anthropology blogs and savvy websites can extend this to a wider audience, creating a demand for an anthropology that will “show an undying faith in the richness and variability of humankind” (Trouillot 2003:139).

Jason Antrosio blogs at Living Anthropologically and is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Hartwick College.


Molly said...

Thanks for renewing my faith in anthropology once again.

Jason Antrosio said...

Thanks Molly!

Conor said...

ts a "how to" guide. I love it. Its such a simple...and inventive way to format a blog post. Cool.