Megan, Maguire Fellow in Dallas

Megan B. is a graduate student studying anthropology. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2017 from SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility. She is spending the summer studying environmental advocacy with the Trinity River Audubon Society.

Learning to See

If you were given a box of crayons and asked to draw a scene from nature, you would probably first start with the green and brown crayons, maybe adding a swath of blue for the sky and a round yellow ball in the sky as your sun. When you start to look closely at the world, though, you realize that there is a lot more detail than you can capture with four crayons.

We took the campers on a “color hike” last week. Before we left, each camper was given a few swatches of paint color, and then had to look for those colors while on our hike. The campers aren’t just given swatches of green and brown, but also brighter colors: purples and reds, magentas and yellows, blues and whites. As we hike through different habitats, we see how the colors of plants and animals change. More importantly, we start to notice details that might have escaped us previously.

Paint swatches from our color hike.

As a young anthropologist, too, much of my work involves learning to see. I am learning to notice the words people say and how they say them, the spaces with which they interact and the ways in which they move their bodies. Just like learning anything, this takes practice.

As I wrap up my summer, I’ve been reflecting on power, space, morality, and our obligations to other living things – sweeping themes that trace their way through human history, all the way to nature camp.

The main goal of these summer camps, as camp staff have told me in their interviews, is for children to be able to engage with and explore the environment in a fun, positive setting. I have watched children start off the week screaming about every bug they see (and the nature center, as a healthy habitat, has a lot of insects), but finish the week happily exploring the trails. A positive experience at nature camp might look different for every child: for some, conquering their fears of insects and diseases might simply mean being able to take a hike without screaming or shouting in fear. For others, they get the opportunity to have a tactile interaction with the wild earth: a place with stinging insects and poison ivy and the sharp spines of the honey locust tree, but also a place with a startling range of strangely shaped leaves, curious insects, and quiet creatures going about their lives.

On one hike, a group of kids crowded around a brown male wolf spider, as one boy screamed, “KILL IT!”

“It’s okay to be scared,” one counselor told the group. She turned to the child who was screaming.

“Are you at home?” she asked him.

“No,” the child replied.

“Are you at a nature center?”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“What’s a nature center’s purpose? To respect animals.”

This simple interaction reframed the child’s experience in terms of a core value of this space: respect for other living things. Fear is an acceptable, and even healthy, emotion to feel at times. But at camp, fear of others or the unknown is not a justifiable reason for causing harm. The children relaxed as they realized that the spider was not trying to hurt them, and, after watching the spider curiously for a few more moments, the group hiked onward.

During an animal encounter with one of the center’s chuckwallas (lizards), the kids were reminded that they were a group now, not individuals, and the poor behavior of one student would mean that all of them would not be able to interact with the chuckwalla. We talked about how chuckwallas have feelings, like fear, and how they make decisions. As the chuckwalla roamed around the circle of children the second time, one of the girls leaned over and told me, “The first time I was scared, and now I want him to crawl on me.”

A chuckwalla (center) with a counselor and campers.

In the face of climate change and other pressing environmental challenges, adults put a lot of hope in the next generation of children. At nature camp, the children start to see the environment as something that is not separate from themselves. The environment is not merely something which surrounds us. We as humans are an active element of our ecosystems. Our actions affect the lives of others. Campers practice respect not only for each other, but also for all living things they encounter. They benefit from the positive health effects of spending time outside. Mostly, though, the children think they are just having fun as they play games in the lab or look through their binoculars.

Spending the summer at nature camp helped me to become more familiar with the history of land here in Dallas; people, plants, and animals who live on that land; and the way the land in our backyard connects with the lives of others downstream, as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. It has been an experience in learning to see everything from insects and birds to patterns of power.

As the summer wraps up and we move into the semester again, I challenge you to keep your eyes open. Look for the life that surrounds you, and consider the broader systems at play.

“The world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle…” – Robert Warren, All the King’s Men

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On Being an Anthropologist in the Era of Big Data

The classroom in one of the wet labs, set up for an activity with balloons.

Last week before camp started I was speaking with the grandfather of one of our campers about my research and the Ph.D. program I am in. He told me that my analytic skills would be valuable when I finished because data analysts and statisticians are in high demand right now.

He wasn’t wrong. We live in the era of “big data”, a phrase which refers to the use of extremely large-scale datasets – so large that they must be analyzed with computers. Indeed, advances in computing technology, along with an increased availability of a multiplicity of data points, are a significant factor in the rise of big data. These days, those with statistical and analytic skills are prized for their ability to mine through vast quantities of data and draw meaningful, robust conclusions from it. These insights guide the decisions and tactics of corporations and governments, and provide important information about consumers, citizens, and other group members.

But an article published in the Guardian from January 2017 made a compelling argument that the era of statisticians was over. Despite the critical role that public statistics play in a democratic society, statisticians are at risk of being pushed out by “big data” – information which is often privately held by corporations. Furthermore, the author argued, statistics are perceived as easily manipulated, and qualitative evidence is often more persuasive.

The truth is, however, that we need both quantitative and qualitative evidence – and reliable public research is of critical importance. When collected and analyzed in an ethical, comprehensive, and scientific manner, statistical evidence can provide useful and reliable insights. Qualitative research is valuable not only for its persuasive power, but also for the information it can reveal.

The boardwalk leading to a bird blind bordering on one of the center’s many ponds.

Anthropological methods can seem radically opposed to the rapid-fire world of big data. Participant observation is a slow process, which means that it can be expensive. Whereas big data tends to be rapidly and inexpensively available. But the stories people live add important nuance to the data. People are more than their zip codes or demographic data.

I chose to study anthropology not only because of my fascination with the diversity of the human experience but also because of the methods that the discipline uses. In addition to being trained in quantitative methods of data analysis, anthropologists are also trained to use in-depth qualitative methods. Before returning to graduate school, I had been working with surveys and large datasets, and was frustrated by the limits of the inquires I could make. I knew that more detail was important, and that certain key aspects of people’s experiences were missing from the information I had in front of me at my computer screen.

So I decided to go out to meet them.

I could send out a survey to parents about camp. I could give the children a pre- and post-test to see what they learned during their time at the nature center. But what if I am asking parents the wrong questions? What if they don’t have the time for a survey? What if, in an interview, a staff member gives the answer they think I’m looking for, but in their everyday life, they think or act differently? What if children learn something that I didn’t expect them to? What if knowledge gained isn’t the best measure of “success” at camp? In fact, evidence shows that experiential learning that affects children’s feelings is far more likely to influence their values and actions towards the environment than the acquisition of scientific or factual knowledge.

I believe that people are the experts on their own lives – not me. I am here to learn from them. Just like binoculars give a birder the opportunity to gain an up-close view into a bird’s life, or a microscope gives a scientist a closer look at the texture of a leaf, so, too, do anthropological methods allow me to see life up close. As a researcher, it is my responsibility to share what I learn with the communities I learn from. After finishing an interview with a staff member at the nature center last week, I was asked what I would do with the results from my study. I explained my plan for sharing my research with the center, academia, and the community.

The discipline of anthropology suffered a crisis of identity in the late twentieth century. David Schneider’s critique of kinship, in which he argued that the belief that biological ties are universally or inherently the most important ties that bind groups of people as reflective of the hegemony of Western and biological models of kinship, knocked out a cornerstone of the discipline’s work. The era that followed was marked by a string of critiques which challenged the work, roles, beliefs, methods, and writings of anthropologists. The focus of the discipline has become diffuse in the decades since, but this self-reflexive period has added an important depth and understanding to the work that we do. Nancy Scheper-Hughes argued that the role of anthropologists is “speaking truth to power,” and indeed, much of the discipline has moved towards the study of power, poverty, and inequity.

These themes permeate our lives. While it is important to study those whose lives are very different from my own, I believe that there is also a role for anthropologists to study what is closer to home. Our lives are full of rich stories. We make meaning out of experiences, not numbers. For those who make decisions, a deeper understanding of human stories is what gives these numbers any meaning at all.

For me this summer, this has meant going to camp. I have had the privilege of learning about everything from the complex history of the Trinity Forest to techniques for identifying scat. And on that note – I have a hike to go on.

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‘It’s Like a Whole New World’

South of the city lies one of Dallas’ biggest and best kept secrets: the Great Trinity Forest. The largest urban hardwood forest in the United States, the Great Trinity Forest covers some sprawling 6,000 acres along the winding banks of the Trinity River. Upon completion, the 10,000 acre Trinity River Project will be the largest urban park in the world.

Tucked in the midst of this forest, on a former illegal dump site, is the non-profit Trinity River Audubon Center (TRAC). Built by the city of Dallas in 2008, and managed by the Audubon Society, TRAC serves as important space for habitat preservation, environmental education, and conservation advocacy in Dallas. The center hosts field trips, home school groups, hikers and birdwatchers, and even weddings.

As a Maguire Fellow, I am spending my summer at TRAC working with its summer camps. Using anthropological methods and frameworks to evaluate the camp programs, I am investigating how the summer adventure camp program at TRAC reflects and enacts broader values of conservation and environmental education. Through participant observation – by which I mean simply joining in with camp activities and watching what happens – and interviews, I hope to gain more insight into TRAC’s culture, and more broadly, learn more about environmental ethics and education.

These adventure camps are day camps designed for elementary age students. It’s TRAC’s hope that these camps can connect kids with nature. Weather permitting, we spend time every day hiking and exploring the trails that wind through the property. I have joined in on two weeks of camp so far, and have been surprised at how much I’ve learned. Much of our learning is very hands-on. One day we all took out binoculars and bird guides on our hike. As we watched birds swoop overhead, the kids shouted as they identified the birds they were looking for.

Dressed to go searching for creatures in the pond.

Another morning we set out to learn more about insects. At first glance, the small meadow below the classroom looked unoccupied. Tall grasses swayed gently in the wind, but there was little other movement. Once we slowed down, however, watching the field with patient, careful eyes, we saw that this small patch of land was in fact teeming with life including grasshoppers and katydids and crickets bounding, spiders weaving their webs, bees pollinating flowers, dragonflies letting loose a low hum as they darted towards the pond. Each child was given a long-handled net for catching insects and a small glass jar in which to gently (and temporarily) trap their prizes. Later, using field guides and microscopes, we took a closer look. Suddenly, the tiny hairs on the spotted legs of the green lynx spider were visible. We could see the differences between different kinds of grasshoppers, and the ovipositor (the tubular organ used for depositing eggs) that marked females from males.

A yellow garden spider caught on one of our hikes.

This is not merely a world in which we live, but one which we can reach out and touch. The world around us is filled with life, is alive. Saving the whales or the panda bears is an easy sell. But what are our obligations to the spiders? Environmental education, in many ways, introduces children and adults to this world that surrounds them, and the field of environmental ethics contends with our moral obligations in the face of issues such as wilderness loss, reduced biodiversity, ecosystem degradation, and climate change – complicated matters that are tightly related to patterns of economic development, systems of power, and inequalities. Sometimes, the lessons we teach at camp are far simpler: don’t squish the bugs.

The legs of a green lynx spider under a microscope.

While we were learning about decomposers at camp last week, we held several species of snails in our damp hands before watching them make trails along our lab tables. Scientists believe that slugs  actually evolved from snails, and not the other way around. Why does this matter? For the slug, it matters because it is more flexible than shell-bound gastropods, and thus can squeeze into tight hiding spaces to protect itself. For the scientists, it matters because this information is based on a deep understanding of time and the fossil record, knowledge that has taken centuries to develop and tells us something important about the way life on this planet works. For you and me, perhaps it matters most to know that there are curious questions in our world that can be seriously contemplated and oftentimes, though not always, answered.

One afternoon, while peering down through his microscope at some leaves gathered during our morning hike, one of the youngest boys excitedly proclaimed, “It’s like a whole new world!”

Sometimes when you stop and look at it, it really does seem like something new.

Visit the Trinity River Audubon Center website here to learn more.

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