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Applying Anthropology Outside the Classroom: Anchorage, AK

By Alexandra Taitt, University of Alaska Anchorage

In high school, I discovered there was a field of study that encompassed my interests in language and culture, world travel, research, and more: anthropology. I went all in and never looked back. Fast forward to today—I am a recent graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Anthropology MA program working at the Anchorage Museum.

Before enrolling at UAA, I studied anthropology and computer science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where I focused my research on projects that combined cultural anthropology, linguistics, museum studies, and technology. In my search for a MA program, I sought a position that would allow me to continue working in those disciplines with an emphasis on connecting to local communities and putting classroom material into action. UAA ticked all those boxes, with the addition of a strong focus on applied anthropology.

UAA’s Beatrice McDonald Hall, home of the Department of Anthropology

The Anthropology program at UAA is a true four-fields applied approach of instruction. There were numerous opportunities to engage in courses and projects that really highlighted the importance of applying what was learned in lectures to collaborative, community-driven projects. A course on ethnohistory demonstrated the importance of archival material and showed us how to visit an archival library and use proper research and object handling methods for sifting through many of the old documents. These skills were applied to writing articles for journals and relating primary source content to our own research projects. Independent studies were often utilized as opportunities to take what was learned in classrooms and apply them to other research projects. These independent studies allowed students to gain experience in data collection and analysis, fieldwork, conducting interviews, and more.

We also have an entire course dedicated to applied anthropology which partners directly with community organizations. Community partners have ranged from Bean’s Café, a shelter and soup kitchen, to the Municipality of Anchorage’s Sister City Commission. Students work with key organizational informants to establish goals of the project then put a research plan into action by collecting data, connecting to the larger community, and produce a list of recommendations. These recommendations are submitted in a final report to the organization for their consideration in the next steps. This applied anthropology course was by far the most valuable because of its real-world applications and fast-paced structure that forced students to rely on their skills while also working successfully in a multi-organizational team.

Working in the Archives and Special Collections at the University of Alaska Anchorage Consortium Library

This experience contributed to my MA thesis titled, “The Next Dimension of Representation: The Role of Photogrammetric 3D Modeling in Digital Heritage Preservation of Indigenous Material Culture.” Collaborating with multiple organizations, including the Social Science Program of Kawerak, Inc., and the Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo, this project investigated the use of 3D modeling ethnographic pieces in museum collections to share with communities in the Bering Straits Region of Alaska. It also addressed some of the ethical considerations surrounding access, repatriation, and decolonizing museum collections. With the opportunity to use practical skills acquired from the UAA Anthropology curriculum, engage with local organizations and communities, and design and execute a research plan in a strict timeline, this project provided the necessary tools for an anthropology career outside academia.

Setup for photographing ethnographic collections at the Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo

After graduation, I accepted a position at the Anchorage Museum working in the Programs and Community Outreach department. This opportunity challenges me to apply my anthropology background in the ways that I design public programs, engage the community, and think about how the resources of the museum can be shared with those outside its walls. Without the varied and relevant applied courses at UAA and the supportive and capable faculty of the department, I would not have the same experience that guides my current frame of reference. In an effort to give back to the program that provided such rich opportunities, I have joined the Graduate Advisory Board, which works with the department to provide feedback on what the Alaskan workforce needs from anthropology graduates. This has been critically important now more than ever as our university suffers crippling budget reductions with anthropology falling on the chopping block.

Today, we need applied anthropologists and archaeologists who are trained in the importance of community-driven work and maintaining local connections more than ever, and the UAA Anthropology MA program does just that.

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