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Inspiring the Next Generation of Anthropologists

Assistant Professor Gordon Ulmer, Ph.D draws from his real world research experience to inspire students

As human hands built roads hundreds of miles long, erected cities covering hundreds of square miles and developed rich, diverse cultures, the experience of human beings has changed and morphed. The evolution of our experiences is researched and studied by the scientific discipline called anthropology.

The world in which humans live seems regular. It’s easy to believe our towns and cities are areas humans have always been, but that’s not the case. Our roads, transportation, electricity generation and super markets are easily taken for granted.

For generations, humans have worked hard to turn the world into the convenient form it is today.

Understanding the scope and scale of humanity is a vast task that requires cooperation between anthropologists and a great number of other scientific and social disciplines.

In an effort to explore questions about how humans interact with their landscape, Humboldt State Anthropology Professor Gordon Ulmer has committed his academic life to the study of environmental anthropology.

Anthropologists are generalists. We’re like ecologists. We borrow and we pull and draw upon all kinds of other fields. That’s part of what makes anthropology, I think, one of the best disciplines.

Gordon Ulmer

“I look at the relationship between precarity and pollution,” Ulmer said. “[It’s] people’s insecurities and instability in life, contingent labor and how that relates to living and working in a polluted waterscape. The anthropological discipline is about human’s variation, bio-cultural variation across all times and all places.”

Ulmer typically works with communities who live near polluted water. He investigates coastal areas, rivers and surface waters which are contaminated with everything from sewage to gold mining byproducts. His primary research takes place in the Peruvian Amazon and Costa Rica beaches where he researches how humans contribute to and interact with polluted waters.

Ulmer’s duty, like most scientists, is to answer questions. The questions that he’s asking, however, are not questions that any one discipline can answer.

More recently, Ulmer has worked with biologists in Costa Rica as he learns at what extent locals are impacted by polluted runoff on their beaches. Ulmer uses methods ranging from on-the-ground surveys to biological analyses of water samples to answer that question. His use of an array of methods equips him and his colleagues to do good science.

“Anthropologists are generalists,” Ulmer said. “We’re like ecologists. We borrow and we pull and draw upon all kinds of other fields. That’s part of what makes anthropology, I think, one of the best disciplines. We can collaborate with and also build upon the work of other people.”

Ulmer is teaching this mindset to his students. At HSU, Ulmer teaches a number of cultural anthropology classes that, according to his students, are really awesome.

Sophie Maga and Rhiannon Cattaneo are both enrolled in one of Ulmer’s classes: Living in the Anthropocene. Maga shared why she thought Ulmer is such a benefit to HSU’s anthropology department.

Sophie Maga and Rhiannon Cattaneo are both cultural anthropologists enrolled in Ulmer’s class “Living in the Anthropocene.” | Photo by Collin Slavey

“I think it’s Gordon’s content in general,” Maga said. “He’s one of the first professors here really diving deep into the Anthropocene and environmental crises and structures that we really need to be looking at that anthropology has lacked.”

Maga and Cattaneo both said that Ulmer has brought something new to the anthropology department. His teaching methods encourage students to think critically about class readings to prepare them for in-depth conversations.

“He’s very socratic,” Cattaneo said. “His class is very discussion based. It forces you to use the class time to really think about and process the readings you do.“

Preparing his students to think and process knowledge is preparing his students to be anthropologists. According to Ulmer, by encouraging deep critical thought, he is equipping his students to contribute to anthropology’s task of understanding the scope and scale of humanity. His students appreciate it.

“For me, he is a symbol of hope because I see him as an advocate for the next generation of students,” Cattaneo said. “The way he’s approaching [teaching] is very democratic, open and informed, so I think he’s having a very positive impact.”

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