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Helping Students Deepen Their Travel Experiences

Going Abroad: Traveling Like an Anthropologist

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Are college students who study abroad returning home with a deep understanding of a foreign culture?

Professor Robert Gordon began to harbor doubts when he noticed that the travel journals of some of his students at the University of Vermont focused mostly on their own, individual experiences.

“It’s very often all about ego – ‘I did this and I did that,’’’ said Gordon, a prominent anthropologist who will speak at Rutgers on December 7th, as part of the Anthropology Department's lecture series. "It’s not about learning from other people and other cultures.”

Those concerns fueled his latest book Going Abroad: Traveling Like an Anthropologist – which aims to recover the practice of engaged travel by helping readers move beyond mere tourism and develop the inner tools of an anthropologist.

“This book is for those who want to break out of the commoditized package version of travel abroad, be it a vacation or even a tightly structured and regulated study tour, and use their own initiative to learn and grow while abroad,” Gordon wrote in the book’s introduction.

When students go off on overseas journeys, Gordon said, it should be an authentic rite of passage, replete with joy, pain and discovery, an experience in which students meet and learn from indigenous people, and ultimately acquire a sense of humility – an understanding that they are not the center of the universe.

It is an experience Gordon knows well. Born and raised in the most sparsely populated country in the world, the former South West Africa (now Namibia), he has performed field research and traveled on five continents.  

But he is far more than an inveterate trekker. Gordon specializes in public service anthropology, investigating the issues poor and victimized people define as important.  His work on the “bushmen” (San or ju-hoansi) challenged the myth of the happy hunter-gatherer and showed they have long been part of the colonial system, struggling with victimization and subject to genocide.

Engaged travel can be enchanting, unpredictable and sometimes unpleasant, Gordon says.  He compares traveling through a slum in a sound-proof, air-conditioned bus to walking through the slum, and taking in all of its sounds and smells.

“In the former one tends to glaze over the experience, whereas in the latter, all the senses are alert, and simply by osmosis one is affected,” he wrote.

Gordon stressed that he is not suggesting students should head out on travel missions expecting to save the world.

“The whole point of this is trying to encourage constructive engagement,” he said. “One of the ways to do that is simply to have a good conversation with someone–an equal exchange, where you are recognizing the person as an equal.”

dorothy hodgson photoDorothy Hodgson, chair of the Anthropology Department in the School of Arts and Sciences, and a longtime friend of Gordon, said he brings a seldom-heard message that applies not only to students but to American tourists in general.

“We need to travel in ways that are not about collecting experiences in a jar, but are about engaging the world and understanding the world,” Hodgson said. “It’s not about seeing pretty people, but seeing culture in action, seeing inequality and injustice, and figuring out our position in the world.”

She added: “To do all this we need to be prepared. That’s where anthropology comes in.”

Indeed, in his Rutgers presentation, Gordon will draw from his book and his extensive field work experiences to help students become engaged travelers.

One of the first steps, he said, is putting away cell phones and laptops, unless an emergency rises. Electronic gadgets, Gordon says, keep travelers tethered to their familiar world, and prevent them from fully exploring the mysteries of a new culture.

He also said to keep a journal, and ask pointed questions. “Ask yourself—what did I learn yesterday? Not only about myself but the people I encountered,” Gordon said. “Asking those types of questions forces you to reflect.”

Robert Gordon will speak at 8 p.m., Dec. 7th at Trayes Hall B, on the Douglass Campus Center. The lecture is part of the Technologies Without Borders: Technologies Across Borders 2011-2013 theme, and is co-sponsored by Office of Academic Engagement and Programming and the Center for Global Advancement and International Affairs.



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