Notes from a Davidson classroom


By John Syme

Chambers Room 1027. Professor of Anthropology Nancy Fairley’s roster for this morning’s Intro to Cultural Anthropology class is not even complete yet. It is January, the second week of class, and there is not yet much on the room’s bulletin boards, either. A map of América del Sur, a couple of flyers.

Fairley updates her roll to match the four rows of sleepy faces before her. Then she begins, telling her students to “jump in anytime you want.” Only one or two people want. The rest, not so much. It is 8:18 a.m., and it is January.

Fairley starts warming them up with her trademark—well, warmth. She’s all over the map, from the Great Chain of Being, out of Africa, through religious catastrophism and social Darwinism to modern American “folk concepts.”

Hmmm, could the natural-selection triumvirate of reproduction, adaptation, and variability apply to cultural ideologies?

And here: does survival of the fittest mean survival of the strongest, or something else?

Fairley, an African American, is fine with singling out students by skin color or gender to make a point. Kiki? “Mmmhmm.” Josh? “Yes, ma’am.”

In all her ideological globe-trotting, Fairley is careful to specify which perspectives are global and which are Western assumptions.

Then she drops the pedal: cultural relativism. What if, she asks, aliens came to earth and started asking questions about high heels and toxic hair dye? The students are on it now, heeding her call to pipe up and speak their minds, right or wrong, in declarative sentences. And they are lobbing questions of their own. One, in response to a point about Eurocentric racism, boils it down: “Isn’t it a ‘chicken or the egg’ question?”

Fairley responds: “It’s not about which came first, but what function did it serve?” Welcome to Cultural Anthropology.


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