Dr. Joshua Shapero
Describe your research in about 200 words.
Are the diverse ways that humans approach with the “natural” world a consequence of cultural differences, or is it the other way around? As this question takes on new significance in the face of ecological crisis, my research aims to understand how different understandings of the world around us is bound up with humans’ unique linguistic and cognitive abilities. Specifically, I explore how human communication is grounded in engagements with the physical environment. I address this question through the lens of ethnographic, linguistic, and experimental fieldwork with Ancash Quechua speakers in the Peruvian Andes. I offer three central contributions to scholarship in anthropology and beyond. First, in a time of radical ecological change, I emphasize the importance of attending empirically to subjective engagements with the landscape. Second, I integrate methods from linguistics, sociocultural and linguistic anthropology, and cognitive psychology to develop a holistic account of how human communication is anchored in landscapes. Third, my work responds to an urgent situation of social inequality. Quechua is an endangered language, its speakers are increasingly migrating to urban centers, and their livelihood is threatened by melting glaciers, shifting microclimates, and conservationist policies that restrict access to regions of both economic and religious importance.
What’s the most interesting thing you have learned from a student?
While I was conducting field research in the central Peruvian Andes, I also led a workshop on Quechua history and literacy for interested residents in the town of Huaripampa. The students in the class ranged from five years old to eighty-five. While I’m sure that it was clear to all of them that I was the person with the most to learn in the class, the small store-room where I held the workshop was completely full. What I learned from these students–teachers, really–was that once they were together and focused on the issues surrounding the language they all shared, my role was more or less just to sit back and let them work together. I had seen this kind of spontaneous collaborative work in agriculture, herding, construction, and canal maintenance in Huaripampa–this was the first time I saw it in the context of education. The younger students were adept at writing, and grasped the principles of the Peruvian standardized Quechua orthography, while the older students had stories to share, and words that the youngsters had not quite learned. The older students could talk about the difficulty of illiteracy–the younger ones about the ups and downs of a poorly funded, institutionally unstable, but passionately taught bilingual education program. The message from this is very portable, I believe. Any group of students brings together different experiences and skills–as a teacher, my first goal is to bring these out and into alignment so that students acquire new knowledge and skills not directly from readings and lectures, but from social interaction with a diverse group of peers.