Learning to see like an anthropologist

EDUCATION

Learning to see like an anthropologist

California, USA: Jeff Katcherian, Founder at Culture Academy, talks to OLBIOS on underrepresented students and how to expand their understanding of the world and their worlds.

JEFF KATCHERIAN

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OLBIOS

 

Civic engagement is a surefire way to educate young people on their rights but also responsibilities as citizens. How do you approach this with underrepresented students? 

 

We approach this by expanding their understanding of the world, of their worlds. For me, the best way to do this (and I am biased) is by learning to see like an anthropologist. It’s surely a challenge to motivate young individuals, or anyone for that matter, to engage in democratic processes particularly when, apart from voting, one doesn’t really know what those processes are. We are never really taught how to be citizens, or even what it means to be a citizen.  The aim of Culture Academy is to approach these questions anthropologically; students look at not only what it means to be a citizen of the United States but what it means elsewhere in the world.
How do different cultures practice democracy? I will always remember the time when I took a graduate level course on governance in the European Union. Being the only anthropologist in the class, I was surrounded by political scientists, when the subject of democracy came up. I had made what I thought was an obvious comment – that democracy is understood and practiced differently depending on where you are in the world. Everyone in the class looked at me as if I just told them the funniest joke they ever heard. Some smirked and others couldn’t help from laughing mockingly. To my surprise, they thought the very notion of democracy was a constant – a static definition that could and would never change. Culture Academy seeks to expand the notion of culture for students, and hence, the very notions of democracy and civic engagement. 
We may not all be anthropologists but, I believe, we can all learn to see like one. The first course I ever took in cultural anthropology, we were told at the beginning of the class that the subjects we were about to delve into may provoke us and offend us, make us feel uncomfortable, and challenge our daily assumptions of how to live, how to act, what to believe, and who to be. We may not agree with all of the readings, they would say, but anthropology demands of us an open mind to the way other people live their lives and make sense of the universe around them.
We were going to be exposed to beliefs and practices we may not share or condone in order to develop our own position regarding them. We would delve into topics we never encountered before: taboos and myths, sex, gender, race, immigration, nationalism, capitalism.  All this at an insecure age when an understanding of who you are and who you could be stopped at the doorstep of your family, school, and friends.  

Learning to see like an anthropologist was liberating because it allowed me to hold up a mirror to the world and see myself in it. I was still at an age when I was deeply conscious and unsure of who I was, who I could be, how I should speak, how I should act, how people perceived me and how I perceived others. It was exhausting to be so self-conscious! But how liberating it was to discover that there were new, different ways of living and being and acting and loving. In immersing myself in the immense difference in this world I realized how in common we all were: we all have a belief system, we all have a history, and we all change. I was hooked. Our aim at Culture Academy is to evoke that sense of liberation in students. 

 

OLBIOS

Could you tell us more about the concepts global and cultural competence? How do they help young people engage with a daily life of cultural differences, especially when these happen to be quite disparate?

 

For me, global and cultural competence are two sides of the same coin. Gaining these competencies are not simply an academic endeavor but also a way of being while also being open to various other ways of being. On the surface, global competence is the knowledge that we gain about the world, its peoples, languages, struggles, complexities, and commonalities. Cultural competence is the different ways in which we understand this knowledge in different contexts.
Often students are expected to think outside the box when they have no clue what the box is, what’s inside it or how other people see the box. This is why Culture Academy’s programs not only look at critical global issues but also how different people understand these issues. The programs are an exercise in understanding difference. 
Again, anthropology does a good job at this. In fact, anthropologists have paved the way to our current understanding of difference, from race and gender to sex and class. Simultaneously both eye-opening and frightening, anthropology fundamentally poses challenges to many of our existing beliefs.  It calls into question everything we know about the world and about ourselves, things that we normally take for granted or presume to be natural.
To truly understand other cultures and cultural diversity, a crucial skill in any career one decides to pursue, we have to begin by looking at our own cultural assumptions and how these shape our view of the world. These include assumptions we may not even recognize as “cultural” but may currently take for granted as “natural”, as part of our “common sense.”  

To be culturally and globally competent is to delve into a world where normality is constantly questioned, difference is the norm, and complexity is welcomed with open arms.  It means perpetually challenging yourself to look at the world anew – not only through philosophizing and theorizing, but through actual face-to-face contact with other people as a way of understanding human practices, experiences, and lives.  

 

Ultimately, my hope with creating these educational programs for students is to enhance not simply their global competence skills but also their creativity – their ability to fashion a life that constantly opens their minds to new possibilities of living with themselves and other people.  I want people to know that understanding and engaging with cultural differences (without sounding like Tony Robbins) can help people create the lives they want to lead. After all, how could anyone succeed in and enjoy life if they can only see one way of living it? 

 

OLBIOS

 

In the absence of live teaching, do you think there are creative and innovative ways to engage students in online teaching? Has the shift to online teaching opened up new possibilities, or is it merely a temporary measure?

 

Although online classes pose a much greater challenge to teaching and learning, the challenge of engagement will always persist in both live and virtual classrooms.  I’ve found that the best 

 

way to engage students online is to actually take the time to captivate them by creating an environment, albeit distant, where students feel comfortable to engage with each other in the classroom. This is difficult, especially when the teacher feels compelled to skip immediately to the subject at hand, but since we want students who participate in Culture Academy’s programs to listen, observe, and learn about heavy, complex topics, the only way to do that is to engage them as people with stories we can all learn from rather than as mere students.
We do this by conducting various online activities and exercises that have nothing to do with the topics we will have the students learn so that they are become less guarded, more open to expressing themselves and listening to others. Our ultimate aim is to create solidarity in the classroom, whether virtual or in-person, amongst participants.

This is particularly salient when it comes to cross-cultural learning where participants are from different countries and backgrounds. At Culture Academy, we don’t believe that you become globally and culturally competent simply by going abroad. Both online and experiential learning are essential for students to learn about what people are doing, what they are saying, and how they are thinking. Our Reflect EU-US cross-cultural program, for example, engages undergraduate students on both sides of the Atlantic on global topics such as democracy, fascism, LGBTQ issues, slavery, anti-Semitism, climate change, technology, and various other issues. We do this both virtually and through organizing face-to-face interactions. 

Online learning is definitely here to stay and, I believe, will probably continue to be on the rise, but as I mentioned before, the challenge remains with the ability to create a successful, engaging learning environment, regardless of whether the classroom is physical or virtual. 

 

OLBIOS

 

You are also the Director of a Veterinary Hospital and the Director of Operations at SSO Medical Waste Management. Could you tell us how do you manage to work efficiently in different levels and the motivations that led to this line of work?

 

The veterinary hospital, pet crematory, and medical waste businesses I help run are all family businesses that I fell into after receiving my doctorate in anthropology. As an anthropologist I always wanted to travel far to delve into worlds different than my own. Little did I know that I didn’t have to travel far to be in a world more different than any of the places I had conducted research. At the time, I had initially wanted to move back to Brussels when my father, who is a canine orthopedic surgeon, had asked for my help in starting a medical waste treatment and disposal company. While helping him start and ultimately run the company, I also became more involved in managing the veterinary hospital, then eventually the much larger pet cremation business. 

 

The pet industry, I have learned, is an industry of growth, even in times of recession (or during our current pandemic). In many ways I’ve learned more about human dynamics within the veterinary field than I had as an academic anthropologist. Despite having been an anthropologist who studied cultural diversity on a daily basis, this was the first time I had to manage people – people with different backgrounds, experiences, temperaments, and communication styles. Although I knew next to nothing about the veterinary industry at that time, I felt my training as an anthropologist prepared me to create healthy work environments conducive to growth and productivity. I listened, observed, and engaged with employees, those who knew much more than I did, in ways most managers did not care to. 

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