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SBCC's anthropology department is housed in the Interdisciplinary Center on West Campus.

SBCC's anthropology department is housed in the Interdisciplinary Center on West Campus.


Watch Your Language (and Culture)

Former Anthropology Professor Attacks Course Content; Department Head Answers


Paul McDowell writes: I am a former anthropology instructor at Santa Barbara City College, teaching among other courses anthropological linguistics that I successfully proposed in 2005 and taught until 2015. Thus I observed firsthand the dumbing down of the anthropology curriculum under the current head, Phyllisa Eisentraut. I included descriptive linguistics, which covered the basics. Under Dr. Eisentraut’s direction, the course was revised to eliminate the basics and to provide a superficial link between language and culture. This illustrates a general pattern, observed by Henry Giroux, of the elimination of basic academic courses in favor of the less demanding vocational courses. In light of the firing of Professor Mark McIntire, the taxpaying public should give SBCC a hard look.

I met Dr. Michael Shermer many years ago, shortly after he founded Skeptic, and contributed a couple of articles about the naïve acceptance of creationism by the general public. His magazine is an important contribution to counter the decline of academic standards evident throughout schools and colleges.

Having been an adjunct instructor at SBCC from 2000 to 2016 (and I sat at the Academic Senate at the same time as Dr. Raeanne Napoleon), my anthropological linguistics course drew an enrollment of 50 students in 2012 and remained at that level to 2015, drawing mostly Chinese students. Among others, it included an introduction to descriptive linguistics, which forms the basics of the discipline.

In 2015, Phyllisa Eisentraut, the recently appointed chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department, took it upon herself to change the course beyond recognition. The descriptive linguistics unit was entirely eliminated and was renamed Culture and Language, a mishmash of the two topics using a textbook by Laura Ahearn titled Living Language. Of the book, one reviewer at Amazon had this to say:

“This is the worst textbook I’ve ever read. Ahearn is incredibly biased in her discussions of numerous topics, to the point of complete disrespect for people who hold views that she disagrees with … After reading this book, I learned nothing about how people process, think about, or relate to language. Instead, I feel like I read a rambling 300-page literature review.”

In handling this change, Eisentraut reassigned the course to her significant other, Mark Sanders, upon which enrollment plummeted to 20 students. This provides a specific example of the general pattern of dumbing down, extensively described in the Giroux text.

I know nothing about allegations of Dr. Shermer’s behavior with women, because it is none of my business. Nevertheless, it is evident that a new pretext of the sexual harassment issue has been added to academic politics that has been evident for years and could not fail to compromise academic standards past and present. And the McIntire incident is counterproductive indeed.

I hope that the Santa Barbara Independent will focus on these events at Santa Barbara City College. There are likely other cases of dumbing down, and nepotism is not confined to professors Eisentraut and Sanders.

Paul McDowell teaches anthropology at Los Angeles Community College District.

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Phylissa Eisentraut replies: Given the recent character “attacks” on SBCC female faculty and the one-sided distortions fed to the media by an SBCC adjunct instructor who was not rehired, I am saddened, but not all that surprised, by Dr. Paul McDowell’s condemnation of my stewardship of the Sociology / Anthropology department.

Regardless of Dr. McDowell’s views, I could not be more proud of my contributions to the college. Since my fall 2006 arrival, I have been instrumental in increasing the number of students taking anthropology courses, the number of students transferring to four-year institutions majoring in anthropology, and the number of AA degrees awarded in anthropology. My efforts have gained curricular approval for new anthropology courses and for almost all of our anthropology classes to be taught online, allowing our department to offer one of the first completely online majors at SBCC.

This past spring semester, after almost a decade of lobbying, I christened our new, dedicated social sciences lab where physical anthropology and archaeology, among other social science classes, will be taught. Finally, in 2015 the college approved my proposal to hire a second full-time anthropologist (never has SBCC had two); after a nationwide search, our department welcomed Dr. Tara Carter, a PhD from UC San Diego and instructor at Stanford University.

In reference to Dr. McDowell’s contention that I have “dumbed down” the curriculum, my students consistently tell me my classes are challenging as well as engaging, no better praise in my opinion. I did modify the linguistic anthropology curriculum, but only after Dr. McDowell raised the issue of content himself. For years, students had commented how little attention Dr. McDowell gave to anthropology in the Anthropology 104 - Language and Culture class he taught, in favor of focusing on linguistics.

After reviewing the syllabus Dr. McDowell freely provided to me, my concern at just how little anthropology was included in the course solidified; 12 of the 15 weeks of his class appeared to focus solely on linguistics. As can be reviewed on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website, over the past 25 years the focus of linguistic anthropology has moved away from the descriptive, cataloging approach used by Dr. McDowell to an analytical examination of language use. The revised course is representative of the latest goals and approaches in anthropology, not in descriptive linguistics. A result of my changes, for the first time, UCLA accepted the class as transferable without the need for each student to file a petition.

The Anthro 104 course was assigned to Sanders to break an ongoing cycle of cheating. The same students who complained about the markedly linguistic curriculum were dismayed by the cheating, which had been observed by a substitute for Dr. McDowell. Enrollment in the class initially declined but has since returned to higher numbers.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Dr. McDowell. My gratitude as well to my many colleagues who every day make me proud to teach at SBCC, a community college recognized nationally as an example of excellence.

Phyllisa J. Eisentraut chairs the SBCC Sociology / Anthropology / Archaeology department.

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