Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pertussis in Washington

In my Ecological Anthropology class, we have a section on infectious disease, and a day dedicated to herd immunity and the vaccination wars. For any students who may be interested in following up on that topic, check out this post on the pertussis outbreak in the state of Washington, which has seen a 13-fold increase in cases this year, relative to last year.

Pertussis (whooping cough) is a major health risk to infants, in particular, but it's no fun for healthy adults, either. Washington is in the middle of a major outbreak, partly related to the percentage of unvaccinated people, which is really high on the Northwest Coast, although the CDC suggests that resistance to the vaccine, and a natural cyclicity in outbreaks of the disease are also to blame. 

Note that the numbers are probably underestimates of pertussis cases. Pertussis is hard to diagnose after the first few weeks, and in adults - particularly vaccinated adults - it often doesn't include the classic "whooping" sound to aid diagnosis. Also, there's nothing that can be done about pertussis, per se, so there's not much point in running the expensive diagnostic test. Doctors may assume a patient has pertussis, if the person has the symptoms and was known to have been exposed, but those diagnoses may not be reported to the CDC. 

Speaking from personal experience, pertussis can also be missed. I'm fairly certain I had pertussis this Spring. In mid-March, I developed a cough so severe that I would throw up at the end of coughing jags, turn bright red, even start to see black around the edges of my vision. Four months later, I still cough when I laugh or breathe too deeply. I was on an airplane from Minneapolis to Washington DC at exactly the right time to have caught pertussis, and Minnesota is also experiencing an outbreak this spring. But my case was never counted. The doctors assumed it was a normal cold, just made more severe by my pregnancy, and by the time it was clear that I had a bigger problem, it was too late for a definitive test.

So, these outbreak numbers are probably underestimating the true scope of the problem. Keep your kids safe - vaccinate!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Race Resources from Living Anthropologically

Since I'm revamping my physical anthropology class, I wanted to post a quick shout-out to this fantastic post by Living Anthropologically on resources for teaching race. There are some great-sounding readings that I didn't know about. I'm looking forward to checking them out.

Farming at Palmyra

Saw this lovely National Geographic article about Palmyra.

I visited Palmyra back in 2000 (alas, before my digital camera days, so no pictures!) It's a beautiful place, and very much in the middle of a desert. Like, sand-dune desert. Arid. Dry as a bone. Not a drop of water to be seen. Dry as a. . .well, you get the idea.

How did a town of 200,000 people survive in that environment? Extensive manipulation of rainwater and runoff water from nearby mountains. The article discusses new evidence for at least 35 farming villages around Palmyra, and extensive networks of reservoirs and canals. 

A very interesting example of an agricultural landscape. I'll look forward to reading more.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Intro to Physical Anthropology: The Core Concepts

As I posted, I'm completely overhauling my intro to physical anthropology class. The result will be a class that covers fewer topics, but in greater depth.  Which topics are so critical they should remain in the course, and which topics can be allowed to slide?

In previous years, I've followed the topics laid out in a standard intro textbook. I've used two different textbooks in the past five years, neither of which I love, and the problems with (and costs of) the textbooks are another reason I want to change my approach to this class. 

In a quick brainstorm session, I wrote down all of the topics that I cover in the intro course. I then whittled these down to 15 topics (more or less one for each week of the semester)*. Here is my list of core concepts that must be covered in an intro to physical anthropology class. Some of these are pretty broad, so I'll have to cut them down in order to cover them in-depth. Also, nothing says I have to cover a new topic each week. Perhaps the class would be better if I spent longer on one, and dropped another.

What's missing? What's not worthy of being included on this list? I welcome feedback and suggestions! 

Core concepts:
1) "Nature vs. nurture" (I don't like that phrase, but, generally, I cover the flexiblity of the genetic code and how the environment and our genes work together. Much of this is aimed at improving students' media savvy, when it comes to claims about "a gene for...").

2) Adaptation and evolution (these are key background concepts students should have gotten in high school biology, but often have not)

3) The four forces of evolution and how they work (ditto)

4) Modern human biodiversity, why it exists, what shapes it (finally, some actual anthropology!)

5) Race as a cultural concept/more on physical differences between populations

6) Primate adaptations (shape of teeth and bones, biomechanics, sexual dimorphism, and other physical traits related to particular adaptations)

7) Primate social adaptations (reproductive strategies, altruism, etc.)

8) Speciation (more key background information)

9) Cladistics (with a focus on how relationships are determined)

10) Bipedalism (origins and function of)

11) Tool use (origins and function of)

12) Encephalization (origins and functions of)

13) Cooperative breeding/human social organization (origins and functions of)

14) Origins of modern humans

15) Origins of behavioral modernity

Next up: What are the core skills that should be taught in an intro to physical anthropology class?

*The class has lab sessions, and those sessions will cover some Mendelian genetics (pedigree analysis, etc.), Hardy-Weinberg, human osteology, primate skull identification, and hominin skull identification

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Physical Anthropology: Total Overhaul

I've decided to completely re-prep my introduction to physical anthropology class. I plan to blog the whole process, hoping that I can get comments from readers to improve my plans. In this post, I lay out the reasons for re-doing the class. More brainstorming and planning posts will follow.

Physical Anthropology has always been one of my favorite classes. Although it's not my field, I love it, and I'm very enthusiastic about the subject matter. Plus, my zoology/paleontology background makes this a natural fit for my interests. My enthusiasm used to be enough to turn a large lecture course into a class that many students enjoyed. But two years ago, we switched the class meeting time from early afternoon to eight freaking o'clock in the morning. This has a deadening effect on the entire classroom. At times, I feel like I'm lecturing to zombies (which I am, given the hour!), and the average grade on the exams fell by ten percent. Clearly, changes need to be made.

That's not the only reason I want to overhaul the class. There are certain concepts that I think are critical for students to understand, and I'm not getting through to as many of them as I want. For example, I spend two weeks talking about race, but a significant number of students still don't understand what I mean when I say race is a cultural, and not biological, category. I've tried different types of lectures and activities, I've tried different analogies and explanations, but I still feel that I'm failing.

My goal is to create a more experiential, hands-on learning experience, where students participate in the scientific process, and are able to explore concepts in more depth. The class already has lab sessions, but I plan to shift the regular classroom focus away from lectures to a discussion- and activity-based classroom experience. This necessarily involves trade-offs. I won't be able to throw as much information into my lectures and expect students to memorize it. On the other hand, those topics I do cover will be covered in greater depth, and hopefully the average students will learn more, the struggling students will struggle less, and the top students will gain the skills and context they need to truly excel.

Next post: What are the core topics that any good introduction to physical anthropology course must cover? 

Comments on Inside Candidates

I had some comments on my post about inside candidates. I wanted to share this one from Jen Pylypa: 

I agree with the spirit of your comments here, and they are certainly appropriate given the current American context. Beyond the specific context of your comments, it might be interesting, though, to contemplate that there are other hiring models in the world. Here in Canada, where unions have more power, it is not necessarily assumed that inside candidates are not 'owed' a job. At my university, the collective agreement has various provisions that prevent departments from hiring and rehiring temporary faculty on short term contracts without providing them the respect and job security of permanence. For example, at least in theory preference IS given to an inside candidate if they are 'equally qualified' given the job ad description (although arguments over the notion of 'equally qualified' may ensue). Also, faculty hired on a one year term and renewed annually for 5 years (adjuncts) must after 5 years be 'confirmed', which means that they get a permanent teaching (non-research) position. The logic is that if you respect someone's work enough to keep them in residence over multiple years serving the department, you DO owe them permanence rather than ongoing, economically exploitative, precarious employment.

This is a good reminder that the exploitation of adjunct faculty in US institutions makes the "inside candidate" issue more complicated. 

I would not consider the cases I have been involved with to be exploitative. When I was the "inside candidate" for my present position, I had only been at the institution for a short time (began teaching in August, was hired by the end of April). But, in cases where someone has worked at a university for many years, I am very open to the argument that the institution does owe that person a permanent position. In that case, though, I hope they would consider a targeted hire, rather than run a fake nation-wide search when they plan to hire their long-term colleague.