Visual anthropology review

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This study was carried out with two of the classes that I taught during the 2004 spring semester in the College of Liberal Arts at Willamette University, a selective private college in Salem, Oregon. The first class, “Controversies and Issues in Cultural Anthropology,” was an introductory, 100-level course limited to 1st- and 2nd-year students. Only one of the 18 students in the class was an Anthropology major; for all the others, this was their first anthropology course. Many students took the class because it met a college distribution requirement, but various other courses were available to meet that requirement, so presumably most students had at least some interest in the topic of cultural anthropology. The second class, “Warfare, Violence, and Peace,” on the other hand, was for more advanced students: it was 300-level, and had a prerequisite of one completed course in anthropology. Most of the students in the course were juniors or seniors; 11 were Anthropology majors, and the other 8 were not. The students in both classes were predominantly from white, middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds, so I do not explore ethnic and class variations here; as important as such social positions can be in other communities (see Jhala 1996, Pack 1998), to examine those distinctions in this case, based on samples of one or two students, would risk reifying and essentializing them.

The same format was used in “surveying” the two courses. Without any prior explanation other than a promise to explain my interests in the next class, I gave the students the survey, which, in addition to an informed consent question, contained the following directions and questions (repeated for scenes # 1-8, on two double-side pages with room on the back for further comments):

While watching this film in class, please jot down answers to “A,” about the scenes you found funny. (After watching the film, answer the other questions.)

  1. Scene # 1 Description (briefly state what happened in the scene that you found funny):

  2. What specific aspect of the scene was funny? Why?

  3. Any comparisons (with similar funny things from other movies, books—anywhere)?

Overall Questions:

  1. Please place a double asterisk (**) next to the two scenes that you thought were the funniest.

  2. What do you think the film’s overall message was?

  3. Any other comments on the film’s humor or message? Other?

I then showed the film in its entirety, with students noting on their individual surveys any scenes they found funny (per the survey directions), and then asked everyone to use the remaining 30 minutes of class time to fill out the rest of the survey. I read the students’ written surveys after that class, and then in the next class session I asked a few follow-up questions (which the students answered in writing), such as, “How many of you have seen ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’ before?” We then had a brief class-wide discussion, and I also continued talking about the film in email and out-of-class conversations with individual students.

The students had been made aware, then, of my interest in the topic of humor prior to viewing the film, an approach that some could say unduly influenced the responses. However, in previous screenings with other classes, this film always provoked laughter, so I didn’t feel that my questions corrupted the students’ reactions: it was still entirely up to each student to decide which scenes were funny and why; I told them verbally that if they didn’t find anything funny in the film, they didn’t have to take down any notes.4 And on a pragmatic level, had I not steered the answers, I probably would not have gotten enough answers specifically about humor to be able to verify any patterns.

I should acknowledge from the outset that the number of respondents is still relatively small. On the other hand, I have the advantage of knowing each of these students quite well: these classes had less than twenty students; roughly half of the 300-level class had taken at least one course with me previously; and in both cases the survey was given three months into the semester, after I’d come to know all the students through written assignments and intense class discussions. My sense of these students’ attitudes therefore is often based as much on “backstage” background and observations of what students actually do as what they said on the survey.

My analysis draws on a combination of this qualitative and quantitative data. Below I provide exact numbers (i.e., number of students who found a scene funny), not because I think they provide highly scientific evidence, but because I think it is important to let the reader know whether a given comment or reaction is an anomaly or fairly representative of the class in question. I also specify whether there were any major differences between the two classes, and aside from first-name-only pseudonyms, all students are cited by their actual names (with permission in both cases). The introductory classes studied by Martínez are more comparable to my 100-level class than my 300-level class.

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