The chair of Brandeis University’s anthropology department, Professor Charles Golden, sat down with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the anthropology department, its future and himself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.
Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?
I think the reputation of Brandeis as a small university that is dedicated to research, but is also dedicated to teaching the liberal arts is really attractive and it’s unique. When I speak to my colleagues and friends at other universities, I think Brandeis is a really different and special place.
On the anthropology department’s website, a “four lenses” approach is mentioned. Can you explain what that means?
So anthropology is the study of people, as broadly as it can possibly be. Traditionally, in the United States, departments are divided up into four distinct branches. One is physical or biological anthropology that studies humans as biological beings and our evolution, and medical anthropology is also linked to that. Linguistic anthropology, as the name suggests, studies languages. Cultural or sociocultural anthropology studies living cultures in the broadest sense. Then archeology could be in Classics [departments] or can be in History departments depending on where you are [studying]. But those of us who are in Anthropology departments see ourselves as aligned with those other subfields as well. The thing that links all of them together is this notion of human culture.
What do you think that the anthropology department does right?
I think we do a good job of communicating with one another and with students. Because our discipline is so broad we really [try to] engage with the world around us in ways that [help] students find the path that is most exciting to them. Brandeis folks are double [or] triple majors, so over and over again, we have the experience where people are neuroscience majors or business majors or computer science majors, and they didn’t know much about anthropology, but then they come and they see the courses we offer and the engagement of the faculty and they say, “wow, you know, that really has changed my perspective on this thing [that] I thought I understood.” … So I hope that we can help students find a new perspective that’s really interesting to them. And I also hope what we do well is, uh, listen to the students about those interests and change our courses as a result of that as well.
Is there anything you think the anthropology department could improve on?
I think that we can do more. This is true, I think of Brandeis as a university and it’s true of all of us as individuals, so therefore it’s true of the department: we can always do better. We can meet our obligations to social justice better. We can listen better to students and to one another. But I think that we’re always on that path forward and if we haven’t gotten there, it’s not for lack of trying, it’s just that these things are developmental.
What do you wish that students knew about the anthropology department?
I don’t know that it’s always clear to students how excited faculty are to teach the classes. It seems like work from the student side of things, but in our conversations in the hallway every day, I hear how excited the faculty are to be in the classrooms and to teach those things. And part of that is also to do their research. One of the exciting things about Brandeis is that faculty are really involved in cutting-edge research. So our faculty are constantly going out and finding out new things about the world and they’re excited about it. We’re excited to be in the classroom and we’re excited about the new things we’re learning about the world through anthropology.
How has the anthropology department changed over time?
I think one of the most exciting things to me in the past decade or so is that the number of our faculty has grown. That means that we have a lot of new, younger faculty bringing in new perspectives, new ideas [and] new courses. So when I look at the range of ideas and concepts and classes that we engage with and we teach, it’s really exciting. We’re in a terrific place to go forward. I feel like I’m repeating myself, but this is all sort of interconnected. I learn a lot from my colleagues in the hallway and having all of those new colleagues makes it even more exciting.
How do you hope the department will change in the future?
I would love to see it grow, but Brandeis is a small university. So we’re probably not gonna grow so much, but there’s so many exciting things in anthropology. I would just love to have more people doing more and different things. We’re very excited because our building is being renovated. The Brown Social Science building is being renovated, and that means more than just a fresh coat of paint. That means that we are going to have new facilities. So we’re gonna have new or refurbished archeology labs where we can have exciting hands-on courses. We have a media lab in the anthropology department, and having that refurbished space is gonna add excitement. Pascal Menoret is teaching a course on making a new social justice walking map of Boston and Jonathan Anjaria is teaching a class about a sustainable Brandeis campus. So those kinds of hands-on, engaged things are [something that] we’ve always done, but there’s going to be new facilities and new courses that allow us to do even more of it.
What is your favorite class to teach?
I love teaching my regional specialties. I’m a Mesoamerican archeologist, [and] I work in Guatemala and Mexico. So any course that’s a lecture or a seminar where I can talk about that stuff. I mean, I love it enough to do it for my career, so I love talking about it. That said, last semester I taught a 3D scanning and printing course with Ian Roy from the Maker Lab. This semester I’m teaching geographic information systems. Those are really exciting because students come into them never having done these things, never having scanned and printed something in 3D, never having used geographic information systems. Then over the course of the semester, we can see them learn the skills. Then the outcome is always something that they get to develop their own projects, something that really is interesting to them. So that’s exciting to see them going from having never turned on a computer or used this software before and then at the end creating these incredible research projects. So those two courses, the 3D printing course and the GIS course, are really exciting to me.
Where can an anthropology degree take you?
It can take you anywhere. I think it gives you that toolkit, that ability to analyze culture. And that can be the culture of an office, it can be the culture of a medical practice, of the emergency room. … [It gives you the tools to ask] “how can we see beyond the simple logistical problems and understand the cultural issues that may be driving it?” So we see students a lot who may be dual majors in something else entirely, but they come back and they say “I’m working in a biology lab now, but this thing came up and it brought me back to that moment in anthropology.” I teach a human origins course and the students may be long gone from anthropology, they’re not doing that as their career, but I get an email [from them] saying, “I was just walking through the American Museum of Natural History and it reminded me now 10 years later about this discussion of human evolution. I really think about it a lot, even though my career has nothing to do with it.” … So I think people do everything with it. If you name a career, we have anthropology majors in it. I think anthropology, even if [anthropology majors] aren’t anthropologists as a career, that anthropological lens forms how they do that job.
How do you think that this department fits into Brandeis’ DNA?
One of the things that is not just a slogan at Brandeis but fundamental to Brandeis’ DNA is the social justice mission, the diversity equity inclusion mission, it’s foundational mission to be a place for everybody. Anthropology helps us as a university get a little farther down that road. … I think that, [anthropology] gives us the toolkit to look at things through the lens of the diversity of cultures, and that helps us as a university.
Your research focuses on Mesoamerica. What draws you to Mesoamerica?
Long ago when I was a young student, I thought of archeology as being about the Mediterranean world, about Rome and Greece and Egypt and Israel. Then when it was time for me to go try my hand at actually doing field work, I looked at field schools, which is where you do a summer abroad and excavate somewhere. And the place where I could get to because of my resources was Belize. I had a terrific undergraduate professor who had been teaching me about Mesoamerican archeology, so it was interesting to me and I had the wherewithal to actually get there. From the moment I got to Belize, the ancient culture, the modern culture [and] the environment really enticed me. So I’ve been working there ever since. I went from Belize to Honduras, to Guatemala to Mexico, learning more and more about the ancient Maya civilization. I’m fascinated by ancient American civilizations, but it’s also the modern connections [and] the modern communities that I work with that make it most exciting for me. So that’s what really energizes me to go back. With COVID, I haven’t been able to go for two years to Mexico, but I’m going back I hope this year … and I’m really just eager to get back and see my friends and colleagues down there.
What do you work towards in your free time?
I would love to have free time to go hiking if it was a little warmer. You know, exploring the green spaces in Massachusetts and New England. That’s really what I like to do; Doing that with my son, playing board games, those sorts of things.
Do you have a favorite board game?
[Settlers of] Catan. It’s a go-to. I don’t know if it’s my favorite, I have so many, so many great board games. Some people are very intense players. … So, Catan is the first thing that pops to mind, but I enjoy the whole world of what they call European board games.
What do you wish that Brandeis students knew about you?
I would say this about not just myself, but again about the faculty as a whole: I think it’s often the case that students feel wary about going to talk to a professor for whatever reason, they feel wary of it. It seems intimidating or they’re not quite sure why to go. I would just say that I wish students knew that when we say “just knock on our door,” or “we have office hours,” that students would know that we mean it. We’re really interested in talking to students and hearing [what they have to say]. It doesn’t have to be a big conversation. It can just be a hello, to let us know what’s going on with them.