I hold regular brown-bag sessions with department chairs to provide opportunities to share ideas and raise critical questions. In one of last month’s brown-bags, Professor Michele Gamburd, Anthropology Chair, enthusiastically shared her approach to teaching and learning in her Anthropology of Disasters course. I asked Professor Gamburd if she would write a short piece about a recent enriching experience in the course.
Anthropology of Disasters
In the class we examine risk, knowledge, and uncertainty. We address questions such as:
- What sorts of risks do people face?
- How do we know about those risks?
- Who makes the decisions about which risks are acceptable?
- Do people make decisions for others, and if so, how do they come to hold that power, and how are they held accountable for their decisions?
During disasters, particularly ones involving by-products of human technology (e.g., radiation and other pollution), people are often uncertain about what has happened and how to protect themselves from it.
The scale of caring
We read a book chapter by Paul Slovic entitled “The more who die, the less we care.” Slovic, a psychologist, discusses the psychophysical numbing and compassion fatigue that takes place when individuals conceptualize large-scale risks, hazards, and upheavals that affect multitudes of people. Unfortunately, as the chapter’s title makes clear, research reveals that we care a lot more about the first person than we do even about the second. The difference between deaths 87 and 88 is not the same as between deaths 0 and 1.
The role of media
The media plays an important role in raising people’s awareness of risk and informing them of real or potential hazards and disasters. I brought in an article by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press featured in the Oregonian entitled “As scientists worry about warming world, U.S. public does not.”
The article raises rich questions about fairness and morality in the issue of climate change and it suggests that because the general public isn’t very worried about global warming, we aren’t successfully pressing our leaders to make policy changes to address the looming hazard.
In class, we discussed the article in light of the key themes of knowledge, uncertainty, risk, social vulnerability, environmental justice and the role played by media outlets in bringing information to the people. My overarching point was to show that anthropologists have a lot to contribute to the interdisciplinary subject of disaster studies, including how journalists and scientists communicate to the public.
In class, I asked students to take 15 minutes to craft a 250-word letter to the editor of the Oregonian about the Borentstein article.
A few days later, based on a show of hands, I learned I was the only person who sent a letter to the editor. But, students seemed engaged with the possibility. Inspired by our conversation at the department chair brown-bag, I altered an upcoming assignment to include an option to choose a recent news item from the Oregonian and write (and submit!) a letter to the editor. I hope that some of my students will take me up on the offer!
Gamburd’s letter to the editor was published in the Oregonian! What a great exemplar for her students to be engaged.
Professor Gamburd says it best, “This is a prime example of why I truly love teaching and why I think it’s so important for scholars to interact with students regularly. I learn so much from my being in my classroom.”
Gamburd’s story highlights how PSU faculty are inspiring students both through intellectual and real-world engagement, and demonstrates that faculty are always learning in the process. I know there are a multitude of examples where faculty spark the imagination and curiosity of students.
Please share these experiences on this blog.