One of Us: Cultural anthropology in the college classroom


By Sue Henninger

Tompkins Weekly


“Part of anthropology is thinking with your heart,” Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) professor Tina Stavenhagen-Helgren told her Introduction to Cultural Anthropology students one February morning. Later she elaborated, “We Westerners tend to be analytical, to think in an academic, linear fashion. When you’re learning someone’s story you don’t study them, you listen to them.”

With her respectful, engaging instruction style, it’s apparent that the professor is passionate about educating college students. Stavenhagen-Helgren has been teaching this particular class for over 10 years and noted that it’s now a required course for both social science and international studies majors. “It’s one of my favorite courses to teach because it focuses on the relevance of cultural interactions today,” she said.

Learning more about a different culture is the key to beginning to grasp the behaviors and thinking patterns of other people. Three ways for TC3 students to expand their worldview are reading, honest discussions, and travel. Because everyone enters her classroom with certain assumptions and beliefs, one of the first questions is, “What have you already heard about this particular group?” Most students seem to enjoy having a place where they can share ideas and learn to see issues from different points of view.

That morning the class began with a discussion about migration. Labor migrants come to the United States for a variety of reasons. Natural disasters, war, persecution, human rights issues, and poverty are all factors that “push” people out of their homeland. “Pull” forces to another country can include better wages and living conditions, freedom, and personal safety. Wages that are regularly sent back to the earner’s homeland to benefit families and communities there are called remittances. Stavenhagen-Helgren elaborated that, though financially supporting an extended family rather than just the nuclear family is a cultural norm for many other countries, it’s something that can be hard for Americans to grasp.

Anthropologists look at the larger context of an issue then zoom in on individual stories, she told her class. Stavenhagen-Helgren’s recent work focuses on Mayan dairy farm workers in Central New York. A particular interest of hers is transnational emotionalism: the effect that migration has on parent/child, marital, and sibling relationships. She shared a research slideshow, “a slice of visual ethnography”, about Elena and Pedro (not their real names) which tells the story of a family of Guatemalan migrant workers.

Elena was a teenager who wanted desperately to go to the United States to be with her fiancé Pedro when Stavenhagen-Helgren met her and her family in Guatemala. Pedro and his brother were willingly working 70 to 80 hours a week on a New York dairy farm in order to send money home to their family. It was particularly striking to see the changes their relatives were able to make in the family home once they started receiving remittances from the young men. Elena made two attempts to cross the border. The first was unsuccessful. She was arrested in Arizona and returned to Guatemala. The second time she made it and the couple was reunited. Though they both would like to go back to Guatemala to visit their families, they realize it would be difficult, if not impossible, to return to work in America afterward as H-2A visas are limited to seasonal/temporary workers. Dairy farmworkers don’t qualify.

The contrast between their experience and hers is striking to the professor. “When I take a group to Guatemala, we travel freely and the students and I can go home afterwards with no problems,” she said, adding that crossing borders is not that easy for many citizens in other countries. For Stavenhagen-Helgren, a particularly poignant moment with Pedro’s family occurred when his mother told her she prays for her sons’ safety every single day. “His mother has to see my picture of her son to know he is safe,” she emphasized. “Try to imagine what it would be like if this was you-what the personal impact might be.” Her students, many of whom are close in age to Elena and Pedro, had various reactions. “I’m conflicted. I’m not sure how to feel. It’s very emotional,” one stated. Others said they couldn’t picture themselves risking their lives to cross a border and that they couldn’t believe the young migrants had made it from Arizona to New York on their own.

Social media has generated increased interest in immigration and migration issues among students too. One woman talked about seeing a video taken at an airport where the father was being deported and everyone around him was crying. Another student mentioned she’d been surprised to find that some people on Facebook were dumbfounded to learn there were Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Ithaca. “They aren’t aware of a migrant or refugee population here even though we’re a sanctuary city!” she said incredulously. Another student remarked that she’d heard people say things like “These people shouldn’t be here.” She found the comments harsh and cruel, saying it was like people from other countries weren’t considered human until they were documented. The power of the language is key and the terminology used around migration (undocumented versus illegal) plays a huge role in shaping public perception about certain issues, Stavenhagen-Helgren told the class. “It’s very different from what we hear in the media. They are not criminals. They pay into the American system (Social Security for example) and don’t reap the benefits.”

Social media can be helpful in raising interest about certain topics and her students, most of whom are sophomores, usually have the ability to discriminate between various types of information, Stavenhagen-Helgren said. However, she makes sure her class goes to the library to learn how to look for strong, credible sources. “With the increased polarization today, it’s all about balance,” she maintained.

Though the cultural anthropology course can be emotionally exhausting to teach at times, Stavenhagen-Helgren wouldn’t trade it for anything. “I’m always surprised how much the students teach each other and me,” she noted. “It’s refreshing. It keeps you going to see that this topic matters to students.”

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