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Assistant Professor Dr. Faris Khan has spearheaded a number of projects at SUNY Potsdam since he started teaching here in the fall of 2017. Last semester he launched a new digital anthropology studio, started a digital anthropology internship and he created the inaugural anthropology film festival. His implementation of digital technologies, in and out of the classroom, is driven by an effort to make anthropology more accessible to the public.

“Everything that I’m doing right now, in terms of creating these active learning and experiential learning opportunities, not only aligns really well with the mission of the anthropology department—which is to get students to think about the world anthropologically and professionally—but it also ties in really well with the mission of SUNY Potsdam—to help build students’ core competencies, and that’s exactly what this digital media space offers,” Khan said.

The new digital anthropology studio is filled with vlogging cameras, stabilizers, gimbles, lighting and audio equipment and editing software—providing everything students need to create podcasts and short videos for social media and video platforms. Khan’s digital anthropology interns used the space extensively last fall while working on a variety of digital media projects. “The goal of the studio and internship program is to be part of this move towards making anthropology more publicly oriented…It’s not a traditional course where the professor lectures and the students listen, really this was supposed to be a hands-on, experiential way of understanding how production works, but obviously with an anthropological lens to it,” Khan said.

“One of the things that really struck me about SUNY Potsdam, even when I came here for the very first time for my job interview, was how actively engaged and involved the students were. That’s the culture we have on this campus.”  -Faris Khan

The studio has become a hub of activity for Khan’s students. Last fall, his interns worked on a film, “What is Anthropology?,” to help explain the field of study with a short, informative film that would reach a wide audience. The students also helped Khan launch the Anthropology Film Festival—an event showcasing students’ ethnographic shorts and archaeology vlogs as part of a larger, daylong event called Anthropalooza. The ethnographic short films were created by students in Khan’s cultural anthropology class. One film, “SUNY Potsdam: You Are What You Eat,” examined students’ diets, needs and concerns related to food consumption at SUNY Potsdam. “It was research at heart, but packaged in a very different way, using a different medium,” Khan said. “The point is to gain an insider’s perspective on a particular issue or topic. Obviously, we try to focus on cultural differences, looking at the ethnic and racial diversity on our campus and what different groups of people like to eat, or what they miss about cooking in their home.”

Khan said that typically cultural anthropologists go to a different part of the world and try to understand the people who live there—their point of view, beliefs and practices. “That’s a core component of anthropology, in general, is looking at those cross-cultural differences. The point is to gain an understanding of people in a way that is humanistic rather than exoticize them and make them seem different,” he said.

Khan has conducted his own extensive cultural anthropology research in the past. As a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University, his doctoral dissertation research focused on a group of gender non-conforming people in Pakistan, the country where he was born and raised. He traveled to Karachi and spent a year living and working with the khwaja sira people. In 2009, the Pakistan government provided the khwaja sira with voting rights and there was a lot of activism surrounding court decisions related to transgender rights—which Khan was able to study during his time there in 2011.

“I knew that I wanted to study activism related to gender and sexuality, so this was just a perfect combination for me,” Khan said. “My own research experience was wonderful! It really gave me insight into how this group of gender non-conforming people think, what kinds of activist strategies they use—and I also started looking at what kinds of new media technologies they were appropriating.”

Since completing his research, one of the most progressive bills in the world supporting transgender rights was signed into law in Pakistan. Khan is now finishing a book based on his research about the khwaja sira. He’s also now working on a project examining how new media technologies are being used by gender minorities in Southern Asia—research that will form the backbone of his next book. He plans on getting his students involved in the project. “There’s a lot of interconnectivity between faculty, students and staff, which I have found lacking in other institutions where I have worked in the past…Going forward my goal also is to get students more involved in my own digital anthropology projects.”

In the classroom, it’s a top priority for Khan to keep his students on their toes and engaged. After a brief lecture, he poses questions, incorporates videos, arranges small group activities or plays games to keep his students thinking. “I don’t use any one approach to teaching. Every class that I teach, I use five or six different techniques, which makes the classroom environment really dynamic,” Khan said. “My teaching style is disruptive. And what I mean by that is that it really aims at unhinging students common sense assumptions about human behavior and how the world works. A lot of what we do is looking at case studies from other parts of the world, from other cultures, that destabilize students’ own ways of thinking.”

For more information about dynamic learning opportunities in the Department of Anthropology, visit: www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/depts/Anth

Article by Jason Hunter