Deacon Profile: Margaret Bender

Kristopher Kolb/Old Gold & Black

Kristopher Kolb/Old Gold & Black

Margaret Bender received her undergraduate degree in English from Cornell University. She went on to earn an MA. in the social sciences and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago.  

Bender is currently an associate professor of cultural and linguistic anthropology.

What classes do you teach?

I teach all of the linguistic anthropology courses. I teach a course called Language in Education, a course called Language and Gender, a course called Language and Culture and a new field methods course in linguistic anthropology.

In the past I’ve taught lots of other courses too, but I’m trying to narrow down to those four at the upper division level. And I teach Anthropology 111, People and Cultures of the World, and Linguistics 150, which is Introduction to Linguistics at the lower division level.

Do you have a favorite class to teach?

I love Anthropology 111. We get a lot of non-majors in there and it is a great opportunity to introduce students to anthropology who have never heard of it, who never would be exposed to some of the things we read in there otherwise and to teach people about cultural diversity. It can be a real “aha!” course — a real eye-opener — and it’s very exciting to watch when people read a book that is about a cultural totally different from their own.

Do you have a favorite book?

There is a book I love and have used in a couple of different classes called “Righteous Dopefiend” by Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg. It is an ethnographic study of a homeless, heroin addicted community in San Francisco.

It really opens students’ eyes to what poverty means in the U.S., what addiction means and racial issues, especially among the homeless. It leads students to interact with those populations in new ways and it is beautifully written with amazing photography. I think everyone in the United States should read it.

How did you get involved in anthropology?

I was an English major as an undergrad so I have always loved literature and language but I knew that I wanted to understand the connection between those things and culture and society more generally. Linguistic anthropology allows me to study language and look at its relationship with culture, society and, especially, to power and social inequality and that’s really where my passion lies.

How did you decide to go into teaching?

I think I knew what I wanted to study before I knew what I wanted to teach. Once I taught, I caught the fever and I just fell in love with teaching. I didn’t know until I did it and then I loved it so I’ve kept on doing it.

Do you have a particular project or piece of research that you’re particularly proud of?

Right now I am working with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. I’m helping them to develop new texts for classroom use in their language immersion classrooms — this is a school in which the classes are conducted entirely in Cherokee. While they have books available in translation to Cherokee, there weren’t a lot of original materials in Cherokee for the students to read.

So I’ve been helping them to collect and produce some new books and to develop exercises to go with those books and I think that’s some of the most exciting work I’ve ever done.

Do you have any favorite hobbies?

I love hiking, camping and kayaking — anything outdoorsy. I also love cooking and learning languages.

Are you working on any publications?

I am working on a book project on nineteenth century Cherokee texts and linguistic changes in Cherokee in the nineteenth century. I am co-authoring a book chapter with Cherokee language teacher Tom Belt on the linguistic reoccupation of Cherokee. I am co-authoring another book chapter with Cherokee linguist Hartwell Francis that is on the trickiness of language revitalization.

What is your favorite aspect of life at Wake Forest?

I hope this doesn’t get me in trouble with other students, but I love the students who choose to be anthropology majors and minors and linguistics minors. I think I get to work with a really great group of students.

What is something about anthropology or linguistics that people might have a misconception about?

About anthropology, I think people sometimes confuse anthropology in general with archaeology. Archaeology is just one subfield of anthropology. So there is also cultural and linguistic anthropology and biological anthropology. Anthropology is much bigger and more diverse than people think. I think sometimes people think that studying linguistics means studying lots of different languages and, in fact, linguistics is the science of language itself as a phenomena. So you can be a linguist without knowing any other language than your native language, although it is always better to know more.

Do you have any favorite places to travel?

Of course I work in Cherokee, N.C., and I have taken students there many times. As well as being a wonderful a community, it is spectacularly beautiful over there in the Smokey Mountains. I have also gone with Wake Forest to Salamanca, Spain, which is a fantastic city.

I have been to the Worrell house in London for a semester. That was incredible. For personal travel, I have loved going to Costa Rica to hike and see wild life and speak Spanish.

Any last words of wisdom?

Linguistics is the study of the most fascinating things about human beings and the thing that makes us the most human, which is how we communicate with one another.

This gift of language that we have. I would encourage students to check out 150 and see if they like it because it’s often something that students have never been exposed to and never will if they don’t check out that class.

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