Anthropology ambassadors: UWM brings anthropology talks to high school students

Thomas Malaby boasts an impressive set of academic credentials, including a PhD from Harvard University, intensive research on video game culture, and acting as chair of the UWM Department of Anthropology. His most recent audience was more impressed by the hundreds of hours he had logged playing Skyrim.

Malaby was the latest guest lecturer to talk to Shorewood High School teacher Debra Schwinn’s anthropology class. This semester, Schwinn has been inviting faculty, staff, and graduate students from UWM’s Anthropology Department to provide guest lectures for her students so they can get more exposure to experts in the field.

“This is my ninth year here teaching anthropology,” Schwinn said. “I’ve always tried to get [my students] into the community so they know I’m not just making this stuff up. This is a new way for these students to look at and make sense of the world.”

The collaboration with UWM began when Schwinn enrolled in one of Malaby’s graduate seminars to brush up on her cultural anthropology. She is auditing the class alongside Master’s and PhD students, all of whom were eager to help her classroom mission.

“When I started last fall, people were immediately like, ‘Are you ever looking for guest speakers?’ That’s how it all started,” Schwinn said. “It’s not a big, institutional collaboration. It’s a group of people who love talking about and sharing anthropology.”

Shorewood High School teacher Debra Schwinn brings in UWM Anthropology guests to talk to her class.

Shorewood High School teacher Debra Schwinn brings in UWM Anthropology guests to talk to her class.

Anthropology is a large field. Schwinn has hosted five guest speakers from UWM this semester, with two additional volunteers already on the schedule for next semester. Speakers’ topics include everything from field archaeology to forensic science. UWM Associate Professor Ben Campbell freaked the class out with a frank and very professional presentation about his research into the onset of puberty across different cultures, Schwinn said with a laugh. It was a good window into life in college for her juniors and seniors, she added.

Malaby’s topic was easier to stomach; he discussed how games – anything from fox hunts to today’s online video games – can be ritualized or used at the behest of institutions to accomplish certain goals. The online game “Fold It,” for example, was created by researchers looking for new ways to fold proteins. The way a protein is folded impacts the protein’s effects on the human body, and may have applications for curing diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s. However, searching for the optimal folds was expensive and time-consuming because the sheer amount of possible protein structures was astronomical. The game yielded better results in a much shorter amount of time.

“The best players of these games were able to find folds that were great candidates for retroviral vaccines,” Malaby told his audience. “It might lead you to think about games in your lives in new ways. … Game design is an art form because it’s about designing something that grabs your attention, and right now, there’s an enormous amount of money riding on whether they can grab your attention.”

Her students have loved each guest lecture, Schwinn said, and it showed in the thoughtful questions posed to Malaby after his talk. Could he talk to them more about his research into gambling in Greece? Are all games inherently competitive? Does he play the video game Counterstrike?

(No, Malaby said – he prefers role playing games like World of Warcraft or collaborative games like Rock Band.)

With every lecture, Malaby hopes Shorewood students walk away with a better understanding of anthropology and research.

“We should be studying whatever people find meaningful. If people find video games as meaningful – which clearly they are – we’d better be looking at that,” he said. “If students can find that something that excites them and captures their attention, whether it’s computer games or something totally different … I think that will get them looking to educate themselves and grow and gain the tools they need to understand it and be creative.”

The students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the partnership; Malaby thinks this collaboration with Shorewood might yield positive results for the UWM Anthropology Department.

“It’s very rare for high school students to have much of an introduction to anthropology. This is great,” Malaby said. “We’ve started talking about it as maybe providing some lessons for us, and perhaps a model about how we might reach out to other high school programs around the area.”