Visualizing Anthropology: Florida and Beyond


Illustration by DonkeyHotey

by Charlotte Noble

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard the story. In October 2011, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott singled out of anthropology as a useless major, igniting a flurry of heated discussions about the utility of anthropology as well as other liberal arts majors.

For those not privy to Gov. Scott’s comments, here are a few:

1) Florida doesn’t need “a lot more anthropologists in this state….It’s a great degree if people want to get it. But we don’t need them here” (Tampa Bay News, Oct. 10, “Scott: Florida doesn’t need more anthropology majors”).

2) “How many more jobs you think there is for anthropology in this state?” followed by “You want to use your tax dollars to educate more people that can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.” (Bender, Tampa Bay News, Oct 13, Gov. Rick Scott rolls out his job agenda)

Comprehensive coverage of the furor following Scott’s comments can be found on the Neuroanthropology blog, starting with the initial comments by the governor and the rapid response by the American Anthropological Association, responses from students at the University of South Florida (see here, and here for examples) as well as the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and finally, a reversal of sorts by Gov. Scott.

I remember that October morning when I logged onto Facebook to find a post from a fellow graduate student, Janelle Christensen, citing Gov. Scott’s comments at a local business dinner. Within minutes of the post, Janelle and I were already formulating a plan; a faculty member (who is a “friend” on Facebook) commented about responses that had already been undertaken at the department level.

The big idea we envisioned was this: we wanted to create a slick, easily accessible campaign much like “This is Public Health” created by Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH). We solicited vignettes from our fellow graduate students at the University of South Florida, asking them to write how their work contributes to the state of Florida, written using language aimed at a general audience. Within hours, we had the document, “This is Anthropology” which initially featured the work of 19 students (and filled six single spaced pages of text). The document quickly grew to include 44 vignettes (and 12 single spaced pages). Some of these initial documents were sent to Governor Scott as part of our response or even pasted into comments sections of news reports about Scott’s comments. However, it quickly became apparent that this document, as informative as it was, was not easily accessible in its present form. As I read the exciting, important work being carried out by my fellow students, I thought to myself—who would read through all this? Was there a better way to present this information?

That very same evening, I began to transform the “This is Anthropology” document into the “This is Anthropology” Prezi. Prezi is a cloud-based zooming presentation software that can be used to combine images, text and movement to create a story. The vignettes were matched with creative commons or student provided images in a dynamic presentation, giving graphic representation to the important and wide-ranging works being carried out by anthropology students at USF.

About six or seven vignettes into the presentation, I decided to send the draft Prezi to some of my fellow students, to obtain their input.  What happened next was unexpected. One of the students posted the Prezi on Facebook, which then quickly moved to Twitter. The response was overwhelmingly positive, but certainly caught me off guard—the presentation wasn’t even half finished yet! The next two days were a blur—I spent nearly every waking moment adding to and editing the Prezi, promoting it on Facebook and Twitter, and answering email questions or requests to show the presentations in classes or link to it on blogs.

The initial excitement began to give way to questions about representation, questions of voice, even questions of power.

Did the presentation presume to speak for all USF students? What about those not working in Florida? (We began to include other students work.)  By editing paragraph-long vignettes into 2-3 sentences, did we misrepresent or oversimplify the work being carried out by students? By creating a presentation of the way that our work contributed to the State of Florida, were we accepting a neoliberal agenda without critique? Could we include images from fieldwork? Did we or our participants anticipate that their images would “go viral”? Could we ethically make those choices? What would other universities think about the “This is Anthropology” Prezi; did we presume to speak for the entire field? Suddenly, this was more than simply speaking and showing our work to the general public. While the presentation seemed to be a hit, with over 70,000 views, we now had a growing list of questions and issues that needed to be addressed.

Ultimately, we chose to maintain the Prezi as it was initially formulated. We left more critical responses for other mediums, continue to allow edits to be made to vignettes if students wish to see changes, and decided to keep images of participants out of the presentation. Most visitors to the Prezi do not completely view the presentation; with over 120 points on the viewing path, that is not surprising. Like the “This is Anthropology” document, the Prezi is past the point of being easily accessible—now, it is a cumbersome, lengthy presentation that is somewhat of a chore to move through.

That is why we are already working on the next steps for “This is Anthropology”. I wish I could share the exciting details about the next incarnation, but we are still in the planning phases and there’s still much work to be done. We anticipate being able to include many other voices, and many other anthropologies.  In my opinion, this is an exciting time to be an anthropologist. So with all of my heart–thank you, Governor Scott. By questioning my chosen discipline, you sparked a movement. Not only are we able to respond to questions about what anthropology can and does contribute to Florida and the world, but we now are exploring ways to educate the public about anthropology in dynamic and visually exciting ways.

Piece originally published at Anthropologies | Creative Commons License