What is more important or interesting than knowing about the humans that share the earth with us? I want to know as much as possible about what it means to be human, all the parts of being human now, and throughout all time. The classes I designed: Islam and Conflict, War and Human Rights, Anthropology of Death and Dying, Cross-Cultural Law, and Cross-Cultural Trauma and Recovery, promote seeking and sharing knowledge about humans, even subjects which are difficult to know. In my classes the study of these difficult subjects is akin to building muscle in weight training: we start slow, with lighter weights and build our mental/emotional capacity to know and understand. Students in my classes often ask, "how come no one ever told us about this before, how come we didn't know?" Students want to know about the humans walking the globe with them; students want to know the hard truths about human life, living, and dying in all contexts.
Everyone dies, but death and dying are perceived differently in different cultures. Sometimes former students write to me about a death in their family and how their family appreciated the student's knowledge about dying and death in our own culture. Students learn about what it means to die, burial and funeral rituals, and what to expect in a variety of circumstances and the decisions they may be called on to make. All humans die, but sometimes students feel they have minimal understanding about death in their own culture and even less about other cultures' construction of dying and death. Students often say the highlights of the Anthropology of Death and Dying class include our visit to the morgue and the mesmerizing lecture they hear from our medical examiner, Dr. Goldfogle. Many have never been to a funeral or a cemetery and our tours of the Jewish cemetery, historic parts of local cemeteries, and our visit to the Lummi Indian cemetery on the reservation and the small cemetery with its own beach on Lummi Island interest them as anthropologists.
The War and Human Rights class was designed in the early 1990s in response to my own study of the war in the Former Yugoslavia, the phenomenon of war and its impact on all our lives, and my own recognition that violence, abuse, and everyday violations of human rights eventually affect all of us. Our emphasis in anthropology is on people, the people on the ground as well as the political machinations of the powerful. Anthropology, like many other disciplines, has often neglected this part of being human. There are different cultural understandings of human rights and different understandings of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of violence, atrocities, and mass killings. Again, students express shock that they have never heard of the mass killings of the Armenians, the Kurds, the traumas imposed on the people of Chechnya, Sierra Leone and throughout Africa and indigenous populations on every continent today. The world's interface with genocide and atrocity, and its lack thereof, change how students see the world and the role of the educated citizen.
The Cross-Cultural Law class initially developed from my sabbatical research in 2003 on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The historic trial and the first international tribunal in Europe since Nuremberg changed cross-cultural and international law. For the first time in history, tactical mass rape in war became a war crime. The success of the ICTY was influential in the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the first permanent International Criminal Court, inaugurated in 2003. Law and justice are perceived differently in different cultures but these new courts allow humans a space for narrative, a place to tell their story and be heard. There may be no certain justice for crimes of genocide and mass killings and atrocities, but there is a sense of energy and even hope that is engendered by the changes in law at this time in our lives. These international criminal courts and tribunals will need anthropologists who can speak with victims from within an understanding of culture, who can adjudicate with full understanding of religious and cultural differences in the construction of crime and ideas of justice and reconciliation. The life of the law at this time in history will be shaped by those with knowledge of cross-cultural diversity.
The relationship between culture and religious law and practice helped me see the importance of studying Islam, especially now. The first time I taught the class on Islam and Conflict in Europe it was as an unpaid labor to prepare interested students to travel to Bosnia with me to attend an international conference on genocide in Sarajevo and participate in the excavation of a mass grave and the Muslim mass funeral and reburial of 600 of the 8,000 Bosniaks killed in the United Nation's "safe haven" of Srebrenica in 1995. From the conference in Bosnia, the students traveled with me to Den Hague in The Netherlands and attended the trial of the Slobodan Milosevic. Students went with me to the new International Criminal Court, also in Den Hague, to meet with a judge on the new court and discuss the importance of anthropology in ending the impunity of the rogue actions of leaders committing genocide and crimes against humanity and helping the weak and victimized have a forum to speak their truths.
My life has been touched personally by all the subjects in the classes I designed and regularly teach. I tell students, based on my own personal experiences and academic endeavors that this too, is part of what it means to be human: people suffer, people cause suffering, they recover and seek rules and laws as a means of resolution and people die. Humans don't always live and die in the same ways. We often come unprepared to these difficult subjects but we can build emotional and mental "muscle." Anthropology students, like all people everywhere, will be touched by trauma or death at some time in their lives. This, too, is a part of what it means to be human. Strength in the knowledge of these hard subjects seems necessary for an educated citizen of the world.
It is always my goal that students will leave my class seeing themselves and the world differently. I want to widen their sense of connection to the rest of the world and all the people living in this world now, in the past, and in the future. I often do this in lecture by presenting the curriculum, various academic critiques of the curriculum, and when appropriate, the use of personal anecdotes from "my little life" to exemplify the practice of theory and analysis. Students are continually asked to contribute through "questions, comments, criticisms."
I use a variety of strategies to keep my students actively involved in the course: inquiry, discussions, review of the readings and case studies, interactive lectures, multimedia materials, guest lectures from experts, fieldtrips, and instructional technology. I demonstrate the use of life examples through my own personal anecdotes and case studies reported by anthropologists I know or have met at professional conferences, and relevant examples in the published literature. Students share their own anecdotes within the analytic framework of the assignments and the discussion forums.
Student comments have been consistently appreciative throughout the years and any criticisms are usually well-founded and practical. I routinely hear from former students all over the world about the practical value of the courses I designed in their present life. Some things are difficult to know and the knowledge changes a person. People oftentimes say they wish they knew more about international affairs and the rest of the world beyond their limits but they feel at a loss because of their knowledge deficits. A student who takes one of the classes I designed, or other anthropology classes , should have mental muscle and strength, the persistence and confidence to fill those "news deficits," and the willingness to always want to know more.
In the future I plan to publish more of my own research and the interaction between "my little life" and theory, sex and gender, cross-cultural law, religion, Islam and conflict in Europe, and war studies. It's "the people" affected by these subjects that I identify with and they are the focus of everything I do. This world belongs to students; this is their world, alive with all the people on this planet now and war and death and conflict based on religion and ethnicity is a part of that world. I am initiating a new class, Cross-Cultural Trauma and Recovery, for the spring of 2007, in order to study human resilience and the value of pedagogical knowledge of suffering and recovery across cultures. How do people in other cultures heal, forgive, love again, or at the very least, go on "putting one foot in front of the other" as they, like all of us, live with the knowledge that this, too, is part of what it means to be human.