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Anthropology gains national recognition

A recent assessment by the Center for Public Anthropology rated USF’s anthropology department second in the nation.

Established in 1967, USF’s anthropology department prides itself on its focus on applied anthropology, for which USF was the first university to offer a master’s and doctoral degree. The department is one of the largest in the southeastern United States.

“Applied anthropology is using concepts of culture and culture diversity to make social policies and social programs more effective,” said Roberta Baer, professor of anthropology. “Our mission is to have effects on programs and public policy. Not all anthropology departments have this kind of orientation, so that makes the department here very different and very special.”

The Center for Public Anthropology has its headquarters at the University of Hawaii. Its assessment took two years (2005-2006) and collected data from 394 schools.

As part of the assessment, departments of anthropology were asked to have their faculty members fill out an online survey to explain how they engage with the public.

This included questions about the community in which they worked, their collaborative efforts, what their research entailed and what kinds of public speaking and public engagements they did.

The Center for Public Anthropology then put all the surveys together and analyzed the results.

“We’re obviously very excited to hear that we’re in the top tier as far as public engagement, but that’s exciting news for us on two levels,” Graduate Director Christian Wells said.

“On one level, it’s because that’s one of USF’s strategic goals – to enhance public engagement with the community – so I think that this shows that the anthropology department is making a very central and important contribution to the University’s strategic mission.”

“It’s also been extremely useful in advertising our programs (to prospective graduate students),” he said.

Wells said that, although an increase could not be attributed to the high ranking alone, applications for the graduate program this year rose to about 150. Before the ranking, there were about 90 to 100 applications a year.

“So we’ve gone up significantly in the number of applications and the quality of applications, and it could have something to do with this No. 2 ranking,” Wells said.

USF’s anthropology department earned the ranking for its research and outreach in the community, including working with community members. The center considered the schools’ visibility, looking at factors like citations in public media and collaborative programs.

“It means that the focus of the faculty research is on doing things that are really useful in the world,” Baer said.

That is one of the reasons Baer chose to work at USF.

“I wanted to work in a department where the focus was on practical, pragmatic kinds of solutions to social problems,” Baer said. “I want to be doing studies that will help people’s lives, not just things that will sit on library shelves.”

One of her recent projects was a study on how health researchers think about race when conducting studies, and potential ways to help them understand how to construct studies without misconceptions about race.

Another example of the department’s outreach is the work of professor Susan Greenbaum on Hope 6, a housing program that looks to reduce concentrated areas of poverty in Tampa by moving individuals into new kinds of public housing.

Professor Erin Kimmerle, a bioarchaeologist and forensic anthropologist, uses her expertise to assist local law enforcement.

Baer stressed that having professors who are so active in the community benefits students.

“If a student takes an anthropology class, they are going to learn about basic issues in anthropology, but they are also going to hear about the real-world projects that their teachers are involved in,” Baer said. “It puts students in touch with people who are thinking practically about doing things to improve our community, and it also may give students ideas of how they can use the knowledge from their anthropology classes in real-world settings.”

This includes opportunities for students to do research projects focused on contemporary problems.

“The first new faculty that were here were applied anthropologists, and they decided that they wanted their graduate program to be applied anthropology, not regular anthropology,” Wells said. “Ever since that very strategic move, we have attracted faculty with very specific interests in community public engagement.”

Wells stressed the importance of the collaborative work of individual departments within the College of Arts and Sciences itself.

“USF is very unique in that all of its departments in Arts and Sciences are very public- and community-oriented,” Wells said.

The anthropology department does a great deal of work with the Institute for the Studies of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC) and the Patel Center for Global Solutions.

“Partly we’re successful because of our great faculty, our great program, but we’re also partly successful because of that relationship we that have with ISLAC and the Patel Center and other centers and institutes,” Wells said. “We wouldn’t be as great as we are – we wouldn’t be No. 2 – without them.”

The top five anthropology departments in the nation were at Michigan State University, USF, the University of Pennsylvania, Arizona State University and the University of California-Berkeley.