By Adam Runacres • PhD Social Anthropology
On the 28th and 29th of June for the UCL Open Days, the Department of Anthropology opened its doors and sent out its representatives to showcase what UCL has to offer in the most humanistic of sciences and the most scientific of humanities. The UCL Open Days allowed prospective students from all around the country (and the world) to get a sense of life at London’s Global University and chat to students and members of staff to understand more about the subjects they are interested in studying. It was a chance for them and their parents to imagine what it would be like to study here and whether the courses were right for them. At the Department, students and staff ran workshops and demonstrations with prospective students, showing off the incredible biological anthropology collection of hominid and primate skulls and tools. In the North Cloisters of the Wilkins Building, students and staff set up a table amongst the other departments to display some of our most precious items from our over 10,000-piece strong material culture collection. One of our most popular pieces was a 19th century Haida rattle from Northwest Canada, depicting a creation myth during which a crow puts the sun back into the sky while carrying a shaman on its back. Another was a dog bell from the Congo, also 19th Century. We had many students approach the table simply interested in the objects and still not quite sure what anthropology was. The most common question we got was, “So what is anthropology about?”. Many students had heard of it and many aligned it closely with archaeology, but the majority had no clue what anthropology meant, and who could blame them?
As research students, we have a passion for anthropology and while our PhDs may occasionally make us feel the opposite, we do understand a lot of what anthropology can be at its core across a range of interests. We are fully immersed in an anthropology department, the largest in the UK and one of the best in the world. So, when we come face-to-face with prospective undergraduates (and their parents) and they ask, ‘so what is anthropology?’, we can find ourselves a little stuck. This is a question that perhaps we haven’t asked ourselves for half a decade, so focused on our specific research that we forget what it was like to study this marvellous subject for the very first time. I think we would all agree that our first reaction to anthropology was overwhelmingly one of confusion. From the outset, anthropology challenges you to think beyond your own perspective and to challenge it in radical ways. It seeks to not only open up your world-view but change your entire world, demonstrating the variety of different forms that human (and increasingly non-human) life can take while always reminding us of our common humanity or vitality. So, the bewilderment of studying (or considering studying) anthropology for the first time is understandable.
At the Open Day, we would ask what students thought anthropology was before giving them an answer. The variety of responses we received was remarkable. Some students simply stated that it was ‘the study of mankind’. Others went into further detail about past civilisations or cultures. Mostly they hesitated and shrugged. Our explanations about anthropology varied as well. Trying to condense the discipline into an elevator pitch, I would say, “Anthropology studies humanity from different angles; social, material and biological”. Students asked whether there was any history involved. We would say yes. They asked whether there was any science involved. We would say yes. They asked whether there was any philosophy involved. We would say yes. As the day continued, I was struck as how many different kinds of students were able to express an interest in anthropology and how the discipline was able to accommodate those interests, however diverse they might be. One surprising observation from the day was the number of prospective medical students that approached the table. They had heard of anthropology and wanted to know more about it and when they explained that they were primarily interested in medicine, I was confused. “Why anthropology? What about it interests you?”. They didn’t really know, and I got the impression that anthropology had been suggested to them as a back-up degree or something to do when they inter-collate. All of us on the table worked hard to encourage them towards anthropology, explaining the incredible work of the medical anthropologists in our department, how scientific some of the research is. I even shared that one of my best friends from my undergrad days went on from anthropology to study graduate medicine. In an understandably shy way, the prospective students mostly nodded quietly and mumbled thank you before leaving to another table.
The value of Open Days is immeasurable. Prospective students get the chance to interact with academics and practitioners as well as current students and see whether they can imagine themselves in a particular department, university and city. Staff and student volunteers also get the chance to explain their research, transmit their passion for their discipline and encourage a new generation of anthropologists to join them. It forces us to consider what we really love about our work and reminds us perhaps why we go into it in the first place. As a PhD student, it can sometimes feel like the discipline is working against you, as if the choices you’ve made in your reading and your decision to embark on a long-term journey within higher education may have been the wrong ones. But explaining anthropology to school-children and watching them become curious about what it has to offer is always a way to reconnect with the eagerness found at the start of study. I have found teaching and public engagement among the most rewarding and energising aspects of my PhD experience, and while it is always exhausting, it has pushed me to consider what makes my research relevant and clearly articulate why anthropology matters to me and to the wider world. In part, such experiences are sales pitches for our department and for our undergraduate programme but mostly they are a chance to spread what we find thrilling and important about anthropology. We are fortunate that anthropology appeals to such a wide audience and that so many people are curious about it. It is encumbent upon us, as the (hopefully soon to be) newest generation of anthropologists to help bring new interests, fresh ideas and eager young minds into a field which is always expanding and open to what life throws at it.
Many thanks to all who volunteered at the Open Days and the London Anthropology Day for UCL and the continued efforts of staff and research students towards public engagement and inclusivity.