Featured in this week’s Between Classes is anthropology professor Megan Farley Webb. Webb, who graduated from Centre College, a small liberal arts school in Danville, Kentucky, received a B.A. in anthropology, Sociology and Spanish. Furthering her academics, she graduated with an MA in Anthropology from California State University and received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Kansas.
Supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, her dissertation research investigated gender dynamics in the context of transnational migration. Her current research focuses on the impacts of shifting nutritional environments of rural indigenous Guatemala.
Webb and I met in her office during the busy week of homecoming, munching on popcorn as a snack. Surrounded by the colorful, inviting Latin America textiles and books in her very organized office, we sat and let the natural light from the window illuminate the room.
Jessica Behrman: How is your day going?
Megan Farley Webb: I’ve taught two classes today. It’s going good.
JB: Did you know that you wanted to go into anthropology as an undergraduate?
MW: I did not. I went to Centre College for my undergrad, which is a small liberal arts school like Albion, in Kentucky. I started as a chemistry major, and I was going to be a chemist. I thought I was going to go to med school, or go do pathology or some sort of research like that. Then, I took an anthropology class as a general education requirement and really loved it. It was science, but it was also people, and I got really excited about it. And then, I had the chance to study abroad that had a lot of anthropology classes associated with it, and I was like, “That’s it. That’s what I’m going to do.”
JB: When you first discovered anthropology, was it the overall field that made you choose it as your major, or was it a certain study or research project you found interest in?
MW: So, I just really liked all the parts of anthropology and the four fields that you can think about. I liked how you can study anything related to humans, and anthropology encompassed it. I just found different studies and research projects that I could do. But I did not start out even knowing what anthropology even was. So, take classes outside of what you think you want to major in, especially early on. Because you can be like “I didn’t even know this existed.” I certainly would not have been an anthropology major, or even got a PhD in that, because I never even imagined it as a possibility.
JB: So you have a B.A., M.A. and your PhD in anthropology, but do you have a certain section within that field that you prefer more?
MW: I have a PhD in anthropology, but I’m trained as a medical anthropologist. I look at health care and the impacts of culture and biology and how they influence each other. So, that is kind of my area of expertise.
JB: What is the main topic of your current research?
MW: Guatemala is where I do most of my research. I work in Guatemala. And that study started when I went and worked with Maya people of Mexico in Chiapas, so right near the border near Guatemala as an undergrad studying abroad. Later on, I kind of shifted into contemporary people of Guatemala. But it all kind of got started with the random study abroad trip as an undergrad.
My current research is looking at the changes in nutrition, focused on what we see in nutritional mull environments in rural Guatemala. We have seen this push for these communities to grow crops for export, and so they have converted a lot of their land to grow products that they would consume to products they would export. They have converted their lands for their export market. But with the promise that the money you make from exporting will help you buy everything you need beyond your food. And that is not what really happens. The returns are really high, [and] they are now in a situation where they don’t have enough food, food that doesn’t have a lot of cultural relevance in Guatemala. About one in four Maya kids in Guatemala is malnourished. I am trying to look at these things from the perspective of clinicians, medical pediatricians, cultural and socio-political perspectives. I went to Guatemala this past summer, and I will probably go next summer so that I have a long enough time to do research.
JB: Did your major in Spanish as an undergrad come in handy with your choice of research?
MW: It does come in handy when you’re working in Latin America. It is good to be able to speak Spanish. I majored in Spanish in part because I already learned how to speak Spanish really well, so I tested out of a lot of Spanish classes and was like “well, why not”. It definitely helped me doing research in Latin America.
Although, I did have to learn an indigenous language. I speak Kaqchikel. I had to learn to speak a Mayan language because the people I work with, especially the women, are monolingual or their first language is a Mayan language. But Spanish definitely helped and helped me be interested in knowing I wanted to work in this area. I think another thing that has always drawn me to Latin America is that I lived in Latin America when I was little, and so it always had this feeling of home to me. So, I think anthropology offered me a way to go and study and do things and understand these experiences I had growing up from a different perspective, too.
JB: When you went for further schooling after undergrad, did you plan on being a professor?
MW: I was always, like, a super nerd, but after I got into anthropology, I thought that I really wanted to be a professor, and I really liked the dynamic that I had with my professors who were anthropologists. They went and did so many cool things and led interesting lives, and that’s what kind of drew me in. And I thought, “That is why I want to go to graduate school: So I can be a professor.”
JB: Did you have a preference for schools where you wanted to teach? Was a reason for coming to Albion that is was similar to the small liberal arts school you attended as an undergrad?
MW: I did. Well, overall it is hard to find jobs as a professor. I would be happy if I was at a big research university, or if I was at a small liberal arts school. But since I had gone to a small liberal arts [school], I think that I had an affinity for them, especially because I really loved the chance to be in a classroom that had six students and the professor. I had a Spanish class that was me, one other student and the professor, so I liked that small atmosphere. When you get your MA or PhD they are necessarily at big research universities. And when you would teach there you had this feeling of like, “Oh, I miss actually getting to interact with students instead of being in the lecture hall that has 100 to 200 students in it, and I never get to know the students names.” I like being able to run into four people when I walk across campus and have the students over and over again, even if they aren’t necessarily anthropology majors.
JB: Does your family often come with you to do research?
MW: I have a three year old daughter named Hannah. She has been to Guatemala several times for research trips. She really likes it until she’s done with it. I think she has been to Guatemala three times now, and so I think she is getting a similar experience with learning Spanish. She seems more interested to learn because I speak in Spanish when I don’t want her to know what I’m saying. So, she is extra motivated to pay attention. She catches on with the language and different things in Spanish. She has enjoyed it.
JB: Do you live in Albion?
MW: I live in Ann Arbor. My husband works for Delta, so he is at the airport. We are in a middle ground.
JB: What brought you to teach at Albion?
MW: Just the job brought me to Albion. I hadn’t really known about Albion ahead of time, but I had gone to a small liberal arts [school], and I knew that those were my top choices for jobs. I would really rather be at a small than a large college. And then they were looking for someone who was a medical anthropologist and would love someone who [studied] Latin America, and it was just a really good fit. It was a really great visit, and there were really great colleges here in the department. And the people I met on campus were always so nice, and you could tell that everyone genuinely cared about each other and were interested in everybody’s success. That isn’t always the case in academics.
JB: Were you already living in Michigan?
MW: We moved to Michigan from Kansas. So, I got my PhD at Kansas, and then I had a postdoctoral fellowship I was doing with the University of Guatemala, and I was still living in Kansas and going back and forth to Guatemala. We have lived here for almost a year and a half now.
JB: How do you like Albion and Michigan in general so far? Have you found anything new that you love about living here?
MW: Something that is interesting is learning new parts of the country. I had examples for things people from the south knew or people from the lower midwest knew. It’s been an adjustment, learning what has been happening in the upper midwest. [The adjustment] has been getting to know different parts of Michigan and getting to see how Michigan students learn and live about.
I love this time of year. It is beautiful in Albion in the fall, and it is beautiful in the spring when all the flowers start to bloom. But I really like the dynamic between the professors and the students here. It is really a nice one. There is plenty of respect between professors and students, but they also know and care about each other’s lives. They really seem to genuinely care about each other.
The other thing that I really like about Albion is that it has the characteristic of a lot of small liberal arts colleges, that professors are really encouraging of students and students are genuinely interested in making connections with what they see outside of class. For example, this is what we are doing outside of anthropology, especially the medical anthropology that I do, and it has stuff that all the biology and pre-med students can really relate to. It also has things that students in geology can relate to. And the professors encourage that, and the students really grasp that. And that’s something really cool about the small school, is that you’re not just friends with the other anthropology or social scientists in the discipline, but that you have connections to all of campus. Or your professor knows that in your art history class when you talked about this that they can help you make connections. And I think that is really important, especially with anthropology because you are learning about peoples cultures and all the stuff is combined in there.
JB: What are your thoughts on taking years off between pursuing further academics?
MW: I took some time off to kind of figure out what I wanted to do. My parents were very supportive in that they let me study whatever I wanted to study, but if I was going to get a degree in anthropology and be an anthropologist then I was going to have to graduate school. So, I kind of took some time to figure out, “Okay is this what I really want to do?” And I just worked. Then, I got my masters degree at California. I taught in the history department for a year as I was actually figuring out on which grad schools I was interested in. I think I finished in eight years, which is fast for anthropology. That’s another daunting thing, is that you are learning a whole other language and going and living someplace, it takes a long time for research. So, I had a meandering path through academia. I have taught history, Spanish and anthropology. And I think those things help you as an anthropologist I think it is good to pay attention. If you are a good anthropologist you are paying attention to literature, language use and history. These are the skills you learn as you become an anthropologist.
JB: Do you have any advice for the students here at Albion?
MW: I encourage all students to study abroad because college is a time where you have the luxury of time. You don’t necessarily always have a lot of money to take a fancy trip but you can always go places and to go places that you probably wouldn’t go. So, I really encourage people to seek out travel abroad studies to places that they would never think to travel by themselves as an adult. I went to Mexico because I got to go to Cuba. You can always study abroad domestically, too, because there are always groups working with migrants or refugee groups.
You should major in what you really find interesting, because at some level your major is not going to define what your career trajectory is going to be. You could be a history major and end up with a job in business or be an anthropology major who goes to med school. I would say to major or minor in what you find interesting because it makes it easy to pay attention and to do all the work and be successful. And ultimately college is showing future programs and employers is that you are capable of doing the work and being responsible and being successful. So, ultimately, if you have the prereqs for the job, then it doesn’t really matter what your major is.
I also appreciate professors’ and students’ dedication to social justice. This is not always something you see integrated into the curriculum in a lot of small liberal arts colleges.Another piece of advice would be to go and actually see your professors. They are really not that scary!
Webb is currently teaching three anthropology courses including: Introduction to Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, and Anthropological Theory. Her courses for the Spring 2020 semester will include Introduction to Anthropology and Global Health.
CORRECTION. This article, originally published Oct. 11, has been corrected Oct. 11 as follows:
– Farley has been changed to the correct spelling.