Monday, January 23, 2012

reading commentary

Here's a link to one of our first readings for my Field Studies prep class: "What Students Don't Learn Abroad". That way when I comment on it there is some context.

The article, by Ben Feinberg, really made me think about my experience on last summer's Study Abroad program in Ecuador. I want to say that I learned a lot about other people and another culture, but I will admit that a lot of my learning was internally reflected as well. The things I learned about myself there were mostly along the lines of "there are experiences I will never have access to because I was not born a member of this culture," or "I guess I will have to take charge of my own learning here," or "there is so much that I don't know about (insert anything here)." I also learned about my own ability to do things and gained confidence, which Feinberg asserts is not the main goal we should have when studying abroad. But I think the above statements show a different type of learning, and one that should be encouraged.

Basically, even though we had some classroom time in the field I started to appreciate the concept of learner-owned and directed studies through being frustrated by what those classes weren't offering me. I also noticed the impossibility of objective observation and had to accept that I would not be able to deny being a young, white, American female even if that meant something different to me than it did to others. The most obvious difference (to me) was that in my mind, I am seeking to become a scholar and join an academic tradition of thought that enlarges our view of the world-- while to most Ecuadorians and Runa (Quechua-speaking people), I was a tourist, someone with money and free time and a pinch of curiosity. The Runa people in the community got to see more of my curiosity and desire for knowledge than other Ecuadorians, but they still saw me (and all of the other students) as a little daft, not very independent, and very fortunate. I agree with them in some ways, but I also think I have gained more of a value of strength and self-reliance through contact with Runa culture, so I'm working on those qualities.

Anyway, I'm still working on focusing my learning outward toward understanding other things and people in the world while I'm trying to see how I fit into it and learn more about myself, so I hope that I don't fall right into the middle of Feinberg's classification of "What students don't learn abroad."

A couple other thoughts on the reading which I haven't been able to answer myself: if anthropology majors are writing commercials these days, are they so culturally insensitive because studying anthropology doesn't improve our limited mindset, or just because the anthro majors understand the American culture well enough to exploit our fascination with the "exotic?" Also, in the Audi and the Eskimo (or Inuit or other northern American Indian) commercial, was part of the objective to make the car seem like an exotic (and therefore desirable) product? Or was it just the idea that even people in remote places and cultures recognize our superb engineering. Just a couple of thoughts.

For my next post, I'll put up some more background info about the area of Ecuador where I have been and will go.


  1. I sometimes have a hard time with the Feinberg article ... I've spent a decent amount of time abroad, but I still have a really hard time claiming that I know anything at all about the places I've visited. I've been on three field studies to India that constitute a cumulative year in the country, and, still, when people ask me what India's like, I usually start to answer by saying "Well, this is what my experience in India was like ..."

    I guess I just have a hard time feeling okay claiming to be able to represent anyone but myself. So when Feinberg criticizes these students for only talking about themselves when they come home, I have to ask, "Who else can they talk about, really?"

    Anyway. I think I'm probably over-sensitive about this kind of thing, but would be interested if you have any further thoughts about that.

  2. I feel much the same way, I'm glad that I was opened up a little to the reality of how small I am in the world and how little it is possible to know, but that makes it hard to come to conclusions and write papers and all that, ha.

    I heard an interview with Chuck Klosterman once (on This American Life maybe?) where he was saying that he lived in Germany for a while but hated the questions "What is Germany like?" and "What are Germans like?" coming from his American friends because he didn't want to generalize at all. I didn't like his attitude about it but I sympathize.

    So I don't think it's interesting to be like that and say that I know nothing about the world because I never can know anything, but I think it doesn't hurt to qualify statements by admitting my limits. The only challenge then is not to undercut myself too much in an academic paper or other setting where I should be persuasive and confident.

    I think. If all of that makes sense.