A Recipe for Scholarly Community: Departmental Gatherings of 2012-2013

There is no better way to build community than by eating and drinking together, and no better forum for a casual exchange of ideas than over a meal. Based on feedback we hear from graduating seniors during our yearly exit interviews (conducted over lunch, of course), the bread we break together during departmental events and the relationships formed therein truly add to the sense of Anthropology as a real “home” for our majors, intellectually and otherwise.

The academic year always begins with a department open house in August as part of Freshman Orientation. New students and their parents drop in to McMillan Café to converse over cookies and coffee with anthropology faculty about the classes they teach and their research.

In early September a lunch for anthropology majors and faculty provides an opportunity for students to get to know professors they may never have had classes with, or deepen connections with faculty members whose classes they have taken. Later in September, faculty, staff, and graduate students and their families convene in McMillan Café for the annual department potluck that invariably brings out the most creative and international cooks among us.

Winter Party 2012

Students, faculty, and their families fill McMillan Cafe for the Winter Party, December, 2012

October sees parents back in town for Parents’ Weekend and Anthropology invites them in for a small brunch with faculty and staff. In November, the grad/faculty mixer is a chance for graduate students and faculty from different subfields to become acquainted. The fall semester is always capped off by the wonderful Winter Party, open to all faculty, staff, graduate students, majors and families. During the Winter Party McMillan Café comes alive as people enjoy comfort food and festive cookies traditionally baked by the graduate students. After the food and conversation, the highlight of the evening is the goofy gift draw. Castaways, freebies and corporate swag make up the bulk of the gifts which are collected by department staff over the course of the year.

The department’s ongoing colloquium series brings together members of all the subfields, providing a forum for considering anthropology in its broadest sense. These talks might focus on the work of our own faculty or bring visiting scholars to St. Louis to present their work to the members of the anthropology department and interested university colleagues. Each colloquium is held in the late afternoon and is followed by a reception that provides a congenial setting for informal discussion and follow-up questions. In addition to the all-department colloquium series, each subfield has a weekly gathering.

The spring semester sees fewer standing events and more specially scheduled events. To complement the annual anthropology career-focused workshop, this year we invited alumnus Jon Block to return to campus. He talked with a small group of undergrads about his fascinating path from studying physical anthropology as a WUSTL undergrad to becoming an entrepreneur in the field of medical devices.  Later in the semester, Professor Kedron Thomas led a small discussion group on a recent article from The Atlantic magazine on ethnographers in corporate America that provided fertile ground for a wide-ranging discussion. Professor Lewis Wall, MD, PhD was the focus of this year’s “Tea with a Professor,” a new series in which a faculty member is invited into a McMillan Café that has been transformed into a living room. The professor talks about entering the field and answers any questions students want to ask. This year Dr. Wall discussed his love of medicine and anthropology, responding to questions from students as they lounged on easy chairs and pillows enjoying tea and cookies.

spring party inside

While rain forced the spring picnic inside last spring, faculty and students still gathered to enjoy lunch and conversation in McMillan Cafe

While food and drink can be a catalyst for good conversation and intellectual debate, they can also provide a reprieve from the rigors of studying and testing, and offer an opportunity for socializing and networking. One example is the “Break before Break” every March. Anthropology students relax over coffee, fruit, and desserts during midterms and gather together before heading out for spring break.  In April, seniors writing an honors thesis present their research posters at the Honors Poster Session over coffee and cookies. Everyone is invited to peruse the posters and engage with the presenters about their research. The semester then wraps up each year with the Anthropology Spring Party held outside in the courtyard, weather permitting. After grabbing a sandwich, students head over to the field to try their luck with an atlatl. Everyone who hits the cardboard bison target gets a coveted dime-store prize. The final event of the year, of course, is the Graduation Ceremony and Reception. All graduating majors are invited to attend with their families. After congratulating the students and their families, faculty members distribute various academic and service-oriented awards and then mingle with students and their families in the gallery.

By the time anthropology majors leave WU, they laughingly tell us they are the best-fed majors on campus! Beyond the delight in a free meal, however, they insist that the value of these gatherings extends far beyond the food to encompass a much-appreciated sense of social and intellectual community and a much-loved academic home.