Part of grad student professionalization as nascent professors is developing your own class syllabi. I already have a bit of experience in this from teaching Ancient World History at San Quentin, and Ruth allows a fair amount of my input into the classes we teach together. Still, it’s good to have a few stock syllabi, especially for job applications and the like.
I’ve been trying to develop a syllabus for a class I’d really like to teach and this involves watching a lot (more) ethnographic films. I’ve seen quite a few already, but access to these films is restricted at UC – we have to go into the media room and watch them in uncomfortable little cubicles. Needless to say, my further research has been fairly limited. That is, until UC gained trial access to Alexander Street Press’ Ethnographic Video Online. It’s a pay model, but I’m really pleased with the format and the interactive follow-along transcript accompanying the movie. Our trial access runs until May 4th and I hope it is extended, but in the meantime I’ve been soaking up as much ethnographic film as I can stomach.
Earlier this week I watched Robert Gardener’s 1964 classic Dead Birds. He filmed it among the Dani of West Papua, who at the time he characterized as having an “almost Neolithic culture.” The film follows a day-in-the-life-of narrative structure, following the lives of a Dani man, woman, and child. The narrative is done entirely in voice-over, with Robert Gardener’s solemn, commanding voice telling us the inner dialogues and motivations that drive the on-screen action of these people. He notably characterizes the child Pua as being lazy, smaller, and more awkward than his playmates. Poor Pua.
In 2007, Robert Gardener released a book about the film, Making Dead Birds, which includes his extensive notes while taking the film, along with an amazing collection of letters and photographs of his time with the Dani. It reveals the impact that his stay had on the people, and of the reactions they had to his film, many years later. In all, it’s a great resource, especially for the class that I’m planning.
One small consideration that adds to the challenge of teaching this material is the Dani’s gourd penis sheaths. They’re pretty standard ethnographic fare–Peter Ucko published a comparative study of them in 1969 that is a classic (and at times hilarious) study of material culture. They are a somewhat distracting feature of the film, with different morphological details and attachment schemes sometimes upstaging the interaction between people. A higher-minded anthropologist would probably disdain my distraction, but it brings to mind cultivation strategies, processing times, and the possibility of even recognizing such a thing archaeologically. So, Dead Birds makes the cut. I hope I get the chance to teach it!