Home News Vision The life of a cultural anthropologist, part 1

The life of a cultural anthropologist, part 1

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Veronika Ederer Photo The historic Institute for Cultural Anthropology and Africanistics in Munich, Germany. Veronika Ederer would commute every day by bicycle to the renowned university.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

It begins at the university

By Veronika Ederer

Special to the Daily Record

My interest in cultural anthropology started — as you may know from my previous articles — when I first read the fictional novels of German author Karl May as a teenager. (May is a Western author who, despite never leaving the country, became famous in the 19th century for his stories about the Mescalero Apache Chief Winnetou and his German friend Old Shatterhand.) I was encouraged to continue my studies during my senior school year, so I decided to study cultural anthropology in Munich, Germany, where I lived with my parents.

At first, my parents were not really happy to hear about my decision, because they were concerned that I may end up being unemployed. But later on, they were very proud that their daughter did not study a subject like everybody else — it was different. A museum curator I worked with during an internship, before my studies started, told me that there were 2,000 cultural anthropologists in Munich, and 1,980 were without a job. My friend’s reactions were very ambiguous: Good friends who knew me for years saw it as a logical consequence. Some other friends asked me if I wouldn’t rather go and find a “real job” to earn money. Over the years, I heard and still hear a lot of jokes about me becoming a cab driver, working at a fast food restaurant or being unemployed.

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I, however, did not care. In fall 1995, I enrolled at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology and Africanistics in Munich. My focus was cultural anthropology, but also archaeology and physical anthropology. The Institute for Cultural Anthropology was located next to the famous main building of the Ludwig Maximilian University, which is named after the Bavarian king Maximilian I. Joseph. Every morning, I would bicycle to the university, heading down one of the city’s four royal avenues with its many buildings that were built in the classicists’ period style. Every street in the area has book shops, cafes, secondhand stores and office supply stores. The famous English Garden was nearby, which is the world’s largest urban public park with little creeks, meadows, big trees and beer gardens.

Studying in this environment was confusing and fascinating at the same time. Nobody in school could help me with the enrollment or the study regulations because nobody knew. I used to be a very shy student, but these circumstances gave me a new drive. First, I made an appointment with the director of the former Bavarian State Museum of Ethnology — it is now called Museum Five Continents — to ask him for advice. It took me seven weeks to see him. Then I organized student counseling with one of the university teachers I knew from my previous museum internship. Unfortunately, he had no idea about study regulations. Finally, a good friend who was studying archaeology helped me to create a study schedule.

My first semester started out very chaotic. I knew nobody and nothing. During the first couple of days, I attended an introduction class. The professor gave us a little test for fun — he always wanted to know how much the freshmen knew. I ended up with the best results due to my knowledge on Native American culture. But I was confused that everybody, even the professor, was late attending every single class. Being German, I meet the cliché of being on time for — almost — every occasion, but here students and teachers showed up 10 to 15 minutes too late all the time. It took me a few weeks to find out about the academic quarter. (An academic quarter is known in European universities as the quarter-hour, or 15 minute, discrepancy between the defined start time for a lecture and the actual starting time. This is due to the large size of the average university campus.)

Talking about clichés, there is a cliché about cultural anthropology students, at least in German-speaking countries. Students have the image in the public’s eye of having blue, green or multi-colored hair; they are known for wearing colorful clothing with batik prints, including exotic accessories. There is no dress code at German universities, so students dress sometimes according to their studies. There are a lot of young people dressed like the average student in jeans, shirts, without green hair, and I was one of them.

After I found out that they were actually on time within the 15 minutes, I started studying the professors’ habits and their teaching techniques. The teacher in school who inspired me most was a very charismatic, inspiring teacher. He was prepared for the classes, held lectures without reading from the papers and was truly knowledgeable. Other teachers were not as good. One elderly teacher couldn’t last through all 90 minutes of a class without smoking, so she took a break, smoked outside, and prolonged the lesson towards the end. One younger teacher was not only extremely boring, but he was also sniffing tobacco during the class. This was the only class I quit during my five years in Munich.

One professor was teaching about North America and northern Asia, a huge man always in suit and tie — even in summer — and we did not have air conditioning at the university. He became my supervisor for my master’s thesis in the last semester. He would arrive every afternoon with a soft drink and a meatloaf sandwich, which he ate during the students’ presentations. I later found out he went to bed around 2 a.m., got up around noon, drove to university, and this was his breakfast. It did not matter where we started in a subject, if it was with the Australian Aborigines or the Plains Indians, in his class we always ended up in Siberia, where his main interest was. I took three classes of his, rather by accident, and indeed, every lesson ended in Siberia.

This professor, however, had a remarkably interesting biography, selling books during the day and studying cultural anthropology during the night when he was younger. He became interested in northern Asia and studied in Uppsala, Sweden, where he wrote his dissertation. At the time, it was almost impossible to travel to Russia because of the Cold War to do fieldwork, so he taught at Bonn University before coming to Munich. Regrettably, he never really got to work in the field, publish a paper or attend conferences. But he was a nice man and cared for his students. He discovered soon that I was a reliable student with a deep interest in Native American culture, and, since I also worked as a student assistant during my years in Munich, I was at the university almost every day. In the first semester, he gave me his dissertation to read — it was about the worship of bears in Siberia — and every week he asked me how much I had read. So, I could not escape –I had to read the entire 360 pages.

After my first semester, I knew my way around the streets and the university, I knew how many classes I should take, and I discovered that I really was dedicated to my subject. I already took an internship in the Bavarian State Museum of Ethnology before the first semester and did five more in different museums when the university was on break. Additionally, I did research for a film crew. I also was a tour guide for a special exhibition in the German Hunting and Fishing Museum and organized a museum team for a special exhibition at the German Museum in Munich.

During my second semester, I became a student assistant for the university library and helped when they moved to a new building. I accumulated a wide knowledge about world cultures from the various classes about anthropology. I also studied Egyptology and Japanology, as well as Roman and Middle East archaeology. Three to four times a year, I published articles in a magazine on Americanistics. I became extremely active in university politics, organized a university strike to get more teachers — at the time, we had two professors for 1,400 students — and was involved in the faculty council for two years. After three and a half years, I was ready to write my master’s thesis. It takes five years on average — and I finished it not in six, but five, months. I was ready to work as a cultural anthropologist.

Veronika Ederer received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt in Main, Germany. Originally from Germany, she has worked several years in Switzerland in museums, such as the North American Native Museum in Zürich, and with the gifted program “Universikum” in Zürich. She has visited New Mexico and Roswell for her research and is looking forward to return as soon as the pandemic is over.

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