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Tanzania Program Director Bruce Roberts Thrives on Interdisciplinary Learning

Tanzania Program Director Bruce Roberts Thrives on Interdisciplinary Learning July 26, 2010

“As I always say when I’m teaching,” anthropologist Bruce Roberts remarked, “from an evolutionary perspective, genetic diversity within species is a very good thing. I think the same can be said for learning environments, too.”

Bruce RobertsBruce Roberts

This fall, Roberts will be Director of the ACM Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins program, and he is looking forward to working with students from a wide range of academic areas. The program typically draws a healthy mix of majors – mostly anthropology and biology, plus a variety of others, such as geology, environmental studies, political science, sociology, and even art history.

“All these students are going to bring something different, based not only on their unique personalities but also due to their different disciplinary backgrounds,” said Roberts. “I think that’s very exciting and enriching.”

Individual field research projects are the centerpiece of the semester-long program. For six weeks the students live in a tent camp in the northern region of Tanzania, conducting interviews and collecting data. They tap the rich resources of some of the world’s most significant sites for ecology (the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Tarangire National Park) and paleontology (the world heritage sites of Laetoli and Olduvai Gorge), as well as the cultural mix of the Maasai and Datoga people who live in the area.

True to the liberal arts perspective of ACM off-campus study programs, the students’ project topics are as varied as their majors, and have included archaeology, cultural anthropology, ecology, education, geology, and medical anthropology.

As the Program Director, Roberts will teach a research methods course – designed to prepare students to develop their research proposals – and then guide them during their fieldwork and as they write up and present their projects back at the program’s home base, the University of Dar es Salaam.

Roberts has taken an interdisciplinary approach throughout his career. As a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, he went to Kenya to conduct research for his doctoral dissertation, which was an ethnography of small-scale subsistence farmers in the Rift Valley. A grant he received from the Rockefeller Foundation encouraged study prior to the field research, so he spent a year auditing courses at Michigan State University in areas such as soil science and agricultural economics. “It was a great experience and (the courses) helped me tremendously in terms of processing what I saw in the field,” Roberts noted.

Bruce RobertsOn a travel/study course he led to Tanzania, Bruce Roberts and his students visited a women’s cooperative near Arusha, where he modeled a kanga (women’s wrap) adorned with the image of Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first and most beloved president.

As a Professor of Anthropology at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Roberts teaches at one of the few institutions in the U.S. that combines anthropology and geosciences in a single academic department. “I feel very comfortable in the whole earth science/geosciences environment,” Roberts said.

He teaches courses on ecological anthropology, medical anthropology, migration, tourism, anthropological theory and method, and Sub-Saharan Africa, and also advises students pursuing the development emphasis of the International Studies major.

Roberts’ ties to Africa go back more than two decades. “I was always interested in Africa as a kid,” he said. He got his chance to go in 1988, traveling to Kenya to study Kiswahili. Since then, he has often returned to Kenya, has been to Tanzania several times, and also has visited Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, and Ethiopia.

During the past 12 years, Roberts has led several groups of students to Tanzania and Kenya in a short-term travel and study course he designed called Culture and Ecology in East Africa. Getting students acclimated to Africa has always been an important part of the trip.

For many of the students, Roberts said, this could be the first time they have lived in a place where they are not in the majority in terms of skin color, language, or religion.

“Being an anthropologist, I like students to meet people,” said Roberts. “I think when they get to know people as individuals, it changes things a lot. Being outside of your own culture and your own comfort zone, especially early on, can be a little unsettling, but it’s a great pedagogical device. You get students’ attention.”



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