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Social Studies

Hands-on Liberal Arts

Providing students with hands-on experience in a way that impacts the local community may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of anthropology, but that’s exactly what Monty Roper’s Applied Anthropology course is all about. “Anthropology is applied across a huge range of different professions, in the business world, in the NGO world, in development and health,” says Roper, associate professor of anthropology and Donald Wilson Professor of Enterprise and Leadership.

Sarah Henderson ’16 and Liz Nelson ’17 decided to tackle the project proposed by the Grinnell Historical Museum — increasing attendance, which has been decreasing in recent years. Museum board members asked Henderson and Nelson to research why people weren’t using the museum and what could be done to get more people in the door.

Understanding the Community

Henderson and Nelson conducted interviews with community members who have extensive knowledge of museums. They also conducted random interviews with townspeople and Grinnell students on the street and in the local coffee shop to find out what could be done to attract more people to the museum.

“The experience taught me a lot of practical skills about how to approach people I didn’t know, which I was nervous about at first,” Nelson says. “I feel more confident approaching someone about my research, and we ended up having some really great conversations and learning a lot.”

Henderson, who has been interested in museums for much of her time at Grinnell, relished the opportunity to learn to apply what she’s learned in class to an organization in the community.  “Actually getting to work on a real project for real people has been incredible. I care about it a lot because it feels like something meaningful and real is going to be done based on our work,” says Henderson

Solving the Problem

After a semester of research, Henderson and Nelson wrote a final report with recommendations for the museum, which they presented to the board of directors. “The board was extremely receptive and is moving forward with several of our suggestions,” says Henderson.

One of those suggestions was incorporating a student intern at the museum during the school year to establish a better connection between the museum and the College. The museum has hired several to begin work this summer.

Putting New Skills to Good Use

But the museum wasn’t the only party to benefit from this research experience. In an interview for a graduate school program in museum administration, Henderson was able to talk about the project and what it taught her about the possibility of starting a museum consulting business. “The director was thrilled, and I actually got accepted into that program later that week,” says Henderson.

Nelson adds, “This practicing anthropology class has been my favorite anthropology course, because you always read about theories and ethnographies, but actually getting to do something with that knowledge is so much fun!”

 “It all comes back to the same set of skills that anthropologists employ,” Roper says. “Learning that by doing a project of your own in the community really shows students how to apply those abilities creatively.”

Sarah Henderson ’16 is an anthropology/art history double major from Wilton, Iowa.

Liz Nelson ’17 is an anthropology major from Grinnell, Iowa.

Roopika Risam Talk, "Decolonizing Digital Humanities"

Friday, March 11, 2016 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm
Burling Library
Roopika Risam
Roopika Risam, Assistant Professor of English, Salem State University


Roopika Risam, Assistant Professor of English at Salem State University, will be visiting campus March 11th and 12th.  During her time here, she will give a lecture entitled, "Decolonizing Digital Humanities: Towards New Communities of Practice," Friday afternoon at 4 pm in Burling Library.  


As digital humanities has grown, the field and its methods have been subject to critique for their exclusions along lines of race, class, gender, nation, ability, and other axes of difference. The work of postcolonial digital humanities has taken up these concerns by examining the role that postcolonial theory plays in mediating and reframing the practices of digital humanities. This talk takes a critical look at what it means - and does not mean - to "decolonize" the digital humanities. It raises concern about the undertheorized ways that "decolonization" has been marshaled in response to digital humanities while examining how postcolonial critique can move the field forward and how it influences digital humanities practice in existing projects. 


Light refreshments will be served.


This event is being co-sponsored by the DLAC, the Center for the Humanities, and Digital Bridges.


VoiceThread Workshop

Tuesday, February 23, 2016 - 4:15pm to 5:00pm
Digital Liberal Arts Lab
Gina Donovan
Grinnell College


VoiceThread is a software that allows you and your students to record or post photos, videos, or audio. After something is recorded or posted, the media can be shared with you or with the larger class to facilitate discussion, share information or experiences, or allow for graded speaking assignments. Gina Donovan will lead a workshop with demonstrations of the VoiceThread software in Blackboard, adding media to a course, and sharing that media with classmates.

Light refreshments will be served.


Double the Fun

At Grinnell, students are encouraged to find ways to pursue as many of their interests as they can. This can mean participating in clubs and athletics in addition to academics, but some students want to take their interests even further by declaring a double major.

A double major may seem overwhelming, but it’s actually very common for students to merge two seemingly unrelated interests into a major that fits their aspirations.

Becoming a better doctor

Micah Iticovici ’16 working at a table with books, papersMicah Iticovici ’16, a biological chemistry/economics double major, arrived on campus intending to be a philosophy major. However, he soon discovered an interest in biochemistry and the medical profession.

Then, during his Introduction to Economics course, he began to see an overlap between how economists study decision-making and how medical professionals and their patients interact.

“Patients are really not great decision-makers,” Iticovici says. “They make a lot of really small decisions without looking at the overall impacts of those choices.”

Using the principles he learned in economics, Iticovici has pursued independent research to try to gain a better understanding of how and why patients make decisions that aren’t in their best interests. By delving into behavioral economics with a medical spin, he hopes to be able to advise and relate to his future patients more effectively.

Combining economics with a medicine-oriented biochemistry major may be unexpected, but it has many practical applications. But a down-to-earth major like economics can add a lot to a major that is less logic-oriented as well.

The economics of art

Alex Neckopulos ’17 is a studio art/economics double major who was interested in art from a young age. Her talent was encouraged until high school, where she got very different feedback from her teachers. They viewed artistic pursuits as less valuable than math and sciences, and her interest in art faded.

Neckopulos regained her passion for art when she came to Grinnell, but she discovered that the analytical side she developed in high school was still calling. At first, the notion of combining her interests in art and economics seemed unrealistic. “Honestly I had no idea how they would work together! It felt like I was trying to stick a circle in a square hole,” Neckopulos says.

After taking a job as an assistant in the Faulconer Gallery, however, Neckopulos discovered that her knowledge of economic models and principles came in handy. “Working in a gallery, you have the art that you’re passionate about, but it’s also a business, and you have to know how to get people in the door and really manage your funds,” Neckopulos says.

She hopes to obtain an internship at a larger, public gallery in the future to see what it’s like to pursue those interests on a grander scale. “My advice to anyone who has multiple interests would be to seek out that job that you think might combine them, because there’s nothing more eye-opening than applying what you learn to real life,” says Neckopulos.

Look for the overlap

“Double majors are really doable,” Iticovici adds. “You can combine anything and there will be some kind of overlap, as long as you’re willing to look for it. And that makes everything you learn more fulfilling and interesting.”

For Grinnell students, the ability to delve deeply into more than one subject helps to transform their varied interests into new, more fulfilling career paths. So if you’re having trouble deciding what you want to do, fear not! You just might be able to do it all.

Bruce Weindruch '78 Comes to Campus to Teach a Short Course on Leadership

Bruce Weindruch ’78, CEO and founder of The History Factory, returns to campus to teach the short course Learning from Literature: Insights for Leadership in the New Workplace. 

Weindruch plans to weave timeless fictional characters with the biographies of corporate visionaries to illuminate the role of strategic planning, sales, branding, and corporate social responsibility in today’s 24/7 technology-driven workplace. He says that, in this “MBA for liberal arts undergrads,” students will learn the “why it’s done” – as opposed to “how it’s done” – that distinguishes legendary leaders. 

The Wilson Program in Enterprise and Leadership is pleased welcome Weindruch back to Grinnell. Weindruch earned his bachelor's degree in American Studies and went on to found one of the world’s leading heritage management companies, The History Factory. The company works with clients to connect their future goals with their heritage in creative and meaningful ways, consulting on projects ranging from planning business anniversaries, to developing web content, to writing books and creating films, to supporting archival management. Clients have ranged from little league baseball, to Wrigley, to Lockheed Martin.

Thomas Heath, columnist of The Washington Post noted:

When clothier Brooks Brothers wanted to mark its 175th anniversary, Weindruch's team combed the company's records to publish a book and create a corporate celebration. When Shell Oil wanted a sprawling museum for company offices in Houston, the History Factory designed it.

By building a successful business off business history, Weindruch provides a wonderful example of the value of a liberal arts education and innovative thinking in the business world. Forbes Magazine described Weindruch as the man who's "making history pay."

This one credit course will run from October 26 to November 20, 2015.

Statistics and Society

Undergraduate research tends to evoke images of either a library or a laboratory. The Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL) offers students in social studies and the humanities something different. The lab has computers with statistical analysis programs that can help students and faculty understand trends in data and visually represent data in charts and graphs and on maps.

Grinnellians Helping Grinnellians

DASIL helps students and faculty analyze and visualize data on an individual basis and brings data analysis into the classroom. It also provides experiential learning for student tutors. “We do the students a disservice unless we make sure they have some level of technological understanding,” says Kathy Kamp, professor of anthropology and Earl D. Strong Professor of Social Studies. DASIL is a unique program in that it is staffed by undergraduates.

“When we’re not helping students,” says Beau Bressler ’16, a DASIL staffer, “we’re working on projects for faculty — usually gathering or organizing data.”

Last year, DASIL launched an independent website that hosts a number of data visualizations. Most of the visualizations make use of publicly available — usually government-collected — information.

One of the projects DASIL is taking on is an interactive map tracking land-holding, using historical records, in three Iowa townships in Poweshiek and Jasper counties.

An earlier major project DASIL was involved in was English professor James Lee’s Global Renaissance, an analysis of 25,000 texts from 1470 to 1700 using data mining techniques to visualize the specific language Shakespeare's England employed to describe different races and places across the globe before colonialism.

Learning by Teaching

Bressler has worked at DASIL for more than a year. During his time there, he has assisted students and professors and has done his own research for a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP). As an economics major, he works primarily on econometrics problems. The students who work with DASIL are fairly specialized, says Julia Bauder, social studies and data services librarian. “We try to have a student fluent in geographical information systems, an economics major who has taken econometrics, a mathematics major, and at least one person doing qualitative research and able to use NVivo qualitative analysis software.”

“Sometimes people come and they know what they want to research and what they’re trying to do, but they don’t know the software or don’t know what variables to use,” says Bressler. “I plan on going into research, so being exposed to other students’ research prepares me to do a broader array of research.” In the spring semester, Bressler helped Ope Awe ’15 analyze data for a MAP to determine what factors in a developing country influence entrepreneurship.

“DASIL is a place you can come and learn to work with data,” says Bressler. “Working with people — especially when they’re other students who know how to work with data — can make statistics easier to understand.”

Beau Bressler ’16 is an economics major from San Diego, Calif.

Alumni pledge $1M for new learning spaces

Undergraduates creating interactive translations of literary classics. Analyzing space, time, and motion as philosophical, as well as physical, phenomena. Discovering new ways of seeing the world by recording and analyzing endangered languages.

Grinnell College students and faculty will gain advanced opportunities to collaborate, create, and use new technologies in their pursuit of a greater understanding of humanity, thanks to a $1 million pledge from Grinnell graduates Karen Van Dusen ’77 and Joel Spiegel ’78. Their generous commitment will support the College’s new humanities and social studies complex.

Van Dusen and Spiegel, a Grinnell College trustee, have made the largest pledge to date to a long-term plan to improve the College's academic spaces. The College expects to launch a public campaign next year to raise $20 million for the project, which includes a major renovation of Alumni Recitation Hall (ARH) and Carnegie Hall.

Classrooms that accommodate the continuing transformation in modes of teaching and technology are essential for introducing students to the full range of human ideas, said Erik Simpson, professor of literature and Grinnell's principal investigator for the collaborative “Digital Bridges” project with the University of Iowa.

“More and more often,” he added, “my students will talk about a novel around a table one hour, and move to their computers to collaborate on a digital project the next. Bigger and more flexible classrooms will enable groups and individuals to switch between them seamlessly. Plus, well-designed informal spaces will encourage conversations to extend beyond class time.”

Like Van Dusen and Spiegel’s previous $250,000 commitment for curriculum-embedded global learning opportunities, the couple’s new gift demonstrates their commitment to providing students with “connected and relevant” experiences, complementing great classroom teaching with direct exposure to different ways of looking at the world.

Van Dusen, who majored in political science, describes how Grinnell’s broad-ranging approach expanded her own horizons. While working for Professor of Biology (now Emeritus) Ken Christiansen, Van Dusen would receive his biological samples shipped from the field, along with his accounts to her of his visits with Bedouin tribes. “I grew up in a rural area in the mountains of Wyoming,” she said. “I would sit and watch the license plates of cars passing through on their way to Yellowstone and wonder where those places were. Grinnell was my entry point into that larger world. I want to give other students with the same aspirations a chance to encounter the incredible range of human experience.”

Spiegel agrees. “As a biology major, the humanities and social sciences opened my eyes to the world,” he said. “These new learning spaces are important to us not just as bricks and mortar, but as a way of helping Grinnell pursue its original mission in a new time and context. This is about empowering faculty to help students see the world in new ways, so they can do great things for their own futures, and for the common good.”

President Raynard S. Kington remarked on the power of Van Dusen and Spiegel’s vision. “Through their philanthropic leadership, Karen and Joel are helping to ensure that all of our students will have access to opportunities for becoming effective global citizens and global leaders,” Kington said. “Their dedication to Grinnell as a learning place of national and international prominence is a powerful expression of the value of their own liberal arts experiences.”

“Those who supported the College before us made our educations possible,” Van Dusen and Spiegel explained in a joint statement. “We encourage others to join us in making sure these same kinds of educational opportunities are available and accessible to future Grinnell students.”

Learn more about plans to enhance Grinnell's learning spaces.

Grant Study Will Improve Voter Registration Act Implementation

In 1993, to make voter registration easier and more uniform across states, Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which requires states to include voter registration when qualifying voters apply for social services or driver’s licenses. Two decades later, however, the NVRA is implemented unevenly from state to state, posing problems for equal access to representation. Tens of millions of potential voters are currently unregistered.

Douglas Hess ’91, an assistant professor of political science, recently received a discretionary grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York to study effective, low-cost strategies for states to better implement the NVRA. Hess will work alongside two colleagues from the University of the Maryland and the University of Notre Dame, as well as with Grinnell College students. The grant will last for eighteen months, starting in March 2014.

About This Research

“A lot of states don’t implement the [NVRA] law very well,” Hess said. “Some parts of it they just flat out ignore, and even in states that try to implement it well, some of the counties don’t do it right. So we’re looking at ways to enforce the law.”

There are several things that make it difficult for the federal government to enforce the NVRA. First, there are several thousand local election jurisdictions in the United States, making consistency difficult. Further, although Congress passes federal laws (including the NVRA), those laws are implemented by officials at the county level, and they don’t always use best practices. Finally, given the distance between federal officials and local officials, oversight of federal laws can be difficult. In the case of the NVRA, some localities and entire states had stopped complying with the law, but federal officials had not noticed.

Hess’ research will be conducted through field experiments, statistical analyses of agency data, and case studies.

Since 1994, Hess has been working on the NVRA in various research, consulting and advocacy capacities for nonprofits such as Project Vote. Nonprofits like these often take up the role of watchdog for NRVA enforcement.

Hess directed the NRVA Implementation Project at Project Vote from 1994 to 1996. “We won all those lawsuits [to enforce the NVRA] in the beginning of the project and campaigns,” he said. “And then for several years we all just assumed it was going all right, that implementation would just be on autopilot. But then after the 2000 elections…we realized in fact that actually a lot of states had just stopped doing large parts of the law, because no one was enforcing it any more,” stated Hess.

For Hess, this research is not only about voting rights.

“The larger question is, What is it about enforcement of civil rights laws that make them work? Why do some civil rights laws not get enforced?” Hess said.

“Why do some states do it and other states don’t? Why do some counties do it and other counties not do it? ... What does it take to get a lower-level official to follow congressional law, since Congress can’t maintain oversight of every single official?”

Hess has also found ways to integrate Grinnell students into his research. Of his two research assistants, one is working to help collect and code both qualitative and quantitative data on the law and its effectiveness. Hess is considering having students do summer research projects on the law as well.

Applying Anthropology in the Community

Students in professor J. Montgomery Roper’s Practicing Anthropology class took their studies to the community in the fall semester, performing studies on behalf of local organizations. They used surveys, interviews with local experts, focus groups, archival research, and hours of observation to help suggest improvements at service organizations, for example.

"The course is about learning by doing,” Roper said. “In particular, the students are learning about anthropological methods, policy-making at the community level, and the Grinnell community.”

“My belief is that knowledge builds greater roots when instilled through practice, particularly when the practice involves addressing real-world problems in our own community,” he added.

 One of the six student groups in the class looked into how a local food pantry could increase the frequency of donations.

The Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) food pantry in Grinnell has a problem. While the need for food remains fairly consistent throughout the year, donations fluctuate a lot.

Grinnell students Sara Hannemann ’14, Eva Metz ’14, and Gina Falada ’16 conducted in-person interviews with staff, volunteers, and local experts and surveyed community members to determine why giving varied, and to look for steps MICA could take to make donations more consistent.

They found that most community members donate food rather than money, but some don’t consider the needs of the food pantry. The students suggested that the pantry get the word out about its specific needs using social media, while radio and newspaper ads, and church-bulletin items. By increasing its profile, communicating its needs, and informing the public, MICA could improve its standing supply of food and lessen the need for emergency food drives, the students found.

Rachel Porath, the Poweshiek County Family Development Director for MICA, worked with Hannemann, Metz, and Falada in the early stages of the project. “It was a pleasure working with the students,” she said. “I will absolutely use some of their ideas moving forward.”

 Porath suggested community members the students could interview, and provided the students with information detailing the food pantry’s donations. She hopes the suggested changes will increase donations both in Grinnell and at other MICA food pantries in the state.

Other students in the class looked at issues such as assessing the need to enhance teen and tween programming at the local library, or to back a supported employment program for those with intellectual disabilities in Grinnell.

In addition to poster presentations, each group sent formal reports of their research findings to their community organization.

The Stories We Tell

Days after returning from his study abroad semester in Sri Lanka, Dylan Fisher ’14 began his summer anthropology mentored advanced project (MAP) in Grinnell. Fisher worked with Rachel Van Court ’15 under the mentorship of Professor Kathy Kamp, interviewing families who have farmed in the Grinnell area for generations. Fisher reflects on his experience.

The Stories We Tell

Early this past June, I departed London Heathrow Airport en route from Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. As the plane launched itself up into the air, I turned away from the small window on my left, and looked about the economy class cabin. People around me read magazines and watched movies from small screens wedged into headrests. To my right a family from the London suburbs asked, "Where is your final destination?" In a blend of excitement and fear (for often the one accompanies the other), I too asked myself, "Where is my final destination?" I still wonder.

Two days later, I found myself back in Grinnell, unpacking bags, heavy from months of travel, pinning kitschy artwork on my bedroom walls. I moved slowly from sticky summer heat to the cool air of Goodnow Hall, my recent study abroad experiences trapped beneath layers of sweat. Those first weeks back were difficult; I felt incapable of carrying my story back with me to Grinnell. I was a new person in a place that felt so very old.

I was here for a summer MAP, Reflections on the Past: Land, Memory, and Meaning on the Iowan Farm, in the anthropology department. During this project, I, along with Rachel Van Court '15 (under the mentorship of Professor Kamp), talked with families that have farmed in the Grinnell area for multiple generations. The agricultural practices of these farmers range from conventional and industrialized methods to alternative and organic forms. During these interviews we asked questions about the experience of growing up and living on the farm, memories of the past.

Through these memories, every farmer with whom we spoke (both those practicing industrialized and alternative forms of agriculture) expressed a deep appreciation and stewardship for the land. Often childhood experiences with both family and community on the farm fostered this relationship to the earth. Despite claims from popular (but misleading) environmentalist and agrarian mythology about farming, this love of the earth is not directly connected to the way in which one farms.

Towards the end of each interview I asked, "What was your favorite place on the farm growing up?" The answers to this question were my favorite part of nearly every interview. Farmers responded, retelling stories from their youth, pausing to recall those tiny details of the nearby farms on which they grew up, the farms on which they still live. They mentioned the tractors they once owned, the names of friendly neighbors and brawny horses. They repeated phrases like, "When I was just a kid on the farm..." and "Back then, I remember..." They articulated all those memories that I could not. And for that I was jealous. But I was also captured by the vividness with which they remembered and by the emotional potency of their stories. For moments, as they spoke, they recreated the personal experiences of their past. Memories existed, shared, alive in the space between us, over tabletops, through densely planted corn.

Our strongest memories don't just slip away. They live within us and between us. There is so much value in holding onto to them, and, at times, allowing them into the world, allowing these narratives of the past to be experienced in the present. They speak to the overwhelming greatness of the natural world. Of love and protection. Of hope and fear. Of journey to that final destination. In all their complexity and infinite variability they are human stories. They let us feel and know and believe.

I will remember the stories of these farmers, just as I will remember Sri Lanka. I will remember the sadness of selling the family farm, the childhood thrill of catching rabbits in the snow. I will remember walking along a rocky Sri Lankan shoreline and the feeling of reckless anticipation as the sun began to rise above the ocean.