What Academia Should be Like – Anthropology, Gender, Evolution, and Sharing of Ideas in an Academic Community
I was very fortunate to be asked to give a guest lecture in Ben Junge’s Anthropology of Gender class earlier this semester. This class, mostly populated by Anthro majors and students with strong interests in gender studies, is a vibrant element of our campus’ curriclum. And Dr. Junge is a serious scholar and teacher – who makes sure that students get their money’s worth in their intellectual development regarding what gender means in the context of what it means to be human. No.small.task.
As is the case in many of the social sciences (psychology included), cultural anthropology has a large focus on how details of particular cultures have broad and important ramifications for behavioral patterns within those cultures. Humans are, largely, the cultural ape, and cultural anthropologists like Ben understand this facet of who we are and expand on this concept to the benefit of our students – who are, importantly, the future.
Often, cultural perspectives and “evolutionary” perspectives are pitted against each other – as incongruous, non-complementary parts of coins that don’t share sides with one another. And often, as history has shown, this fact has led to intellectuals on “different sides” of “the human nature issue” often creating straw men (or, perhaps better, “straw people”) to knock down in bolstering particular points of view at the expense of other points of view.
Well, I’m here to say that the nature of life is nuanced and complicated. Sorry. And the nature of what it means to be “male” or “female” – or “masculine” or “feminine” – is anything but cut-and-dried. And Ben’s invitation to me to talk with his students about how evolutionary psychology addresses issues of gender – and, importantly, WHY evolutionary psychology takes the approach that it does – seems to me like exactly the kind of inter-disciplinary and inter-perspective dialog that typifies the best of what happens in higher education.
From the first minute, the context of the class is comfortable and supportive. The students have read some of my work – which instills confidence in me that they have not a straw-man take of my perspective on human nature, but, rather, they have a “from the horse’s mouth” perspective. And any academic worth his or her weight, will tell you that this is always the way to go.
I know that not all social scientists love evolutionary psychology – so that’s a priori for me going into this classroom. But the context was one of mutual trust and respect – with a clear goal of dialogue and helping people understand (again, from “the horse’s mouth”) what my academic area has to say on issues of why and how males and females are different.
It was fun. And I wasn’t surprised that students (being New Paltz students, who are, btw, generally awesome), had a lot of well-thought-out things to say. What are the political implications? How can we be be so confident in the methodology or findings of a particular study in this area? What does all this tell us about why men and women differ in some areas – and why they are similar in others? And what about cross-cultural variability? How is that elephant-in-the-room accounted for by an evolutionary perspective?
In the end, I’m sure that I left the room with as many questions and issues to think about as anyone. The students were thoughtful and respectful – and the dialog was critical and fully appropriate. And I hope and trust that they learned something along the way.
In the end, I think the work I presented may have given some folks pause about the role of evolution in helping us understand what it means to be male or female. And I actually think that this event may have encouraged the folks in the room to think in a new way about what it means to be human.
At the end of the day, all social scientists are in the business of understanding why we are the way we are. And my experience guest-lecturing in Dr. Junge’s Anthropology and Gender class, I think, provided for the kind of multi-faceted and nuanced approach to this issue that represents the kind of thing that we should strive for in academia. Straw men and straw women were put aside, in an open and welcoming context. I know I learned a lot and was forced to think very much outside of the boxes I’m usually stuck in – and I hope and trust that the converse was true for Dr. Junge and his students.
Thanks Ben – and let’s keep this kind of cross-disciplinary and multiple-perspective dialogue alive and well moving forward!