The Great Courses has selected Fairfield associate professor of anthropology Scott Lacy, PhD, to teach their course “Anthropology and the Study of Humanity.”

The Great Courses has selected Fairfield associate professor of anthropology Scott Lacy, PhD,  to teach their course “Anthropology and  the Study of Humanity.”

Just outside the village of Dissan in Mali, miles of sorghum fields stretch out into the distance, tilting toward the West African sun. Their lively green leaves catch the breeze, the sharp edges waving.

Sorghum is a lifeblood grain for Malian family farmers and unpredictable rain patterns in this semiarid environment can threaten crop survival at any time.

So, when Scott Lacy, PhD, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University, stepped in to work as a bridge between local farmers and plant breeders, everyone was surprised by the results.

After months of research and successful test plots of a new, much shorter, dwarf variety of high-yielding sorghum, the farmers were impressed by the new seeds’ yield potential. After harvest, Dr. Lacy asked the big question, “San were, jon be na si kura dan?” (“Who’s going to plant this variety again?”). Every single farmer had the same reply: “N’te.” Or, “Not me.”

Why wouldn’t they switch sorghum varieties? At first the farmers’ response seemed baffling, but “the answers were hidden in the plain sight of daily life,” said Dr. Lacy. “It’s not uncommon for cows and bulls to break loose in rural Mali and enjoy an unlimited buffet. Farmers knew that the big and tasty seed head poised right at eye-level of passing cattle wasn’t likely to make it home to the family granary.”

That’s what anthropologists do, explained Dr. Lacy: With a foot in both camps – science and culture – an anthropologist like Dr. Lacy engages in long-term culturally embedded research to “bridge the efforts and knowledge of disconnected experts who have something to gain from sharing knowledge and resources.”

When The Great Courses, The Teaching Company’s prestigious line of audio and video college-level courses, was looking for a professor to teach a course on this kind of socially engaged anthropology, a colleague’s recommendation led them to the award-winning Dr. Lacy.

The Great Courses selects only the top 1% of more than 500,000 college professors in the world — chosen for their strength as teachers — to be part of their series of audio and visual programs.

Founded in 1990, The Great Courses has offered lifetime education for more than 25 years. Upwards of 19 million courses have been taken by a diverse audience — anyone from a college student looking to get ahead to Bill Gates, who touted his collection of Great Courses during a 60 Minutes interview.

Dr. Lacy, who has been on faculty at Fairfield since 2009, is a recipient of a Certificate of Congressional Recognition and Achievement from the U.S. House of Representatives among several other teaching honors, and has championed his own non-profit for Malian communities,
African Sky, established in 2004. He said that being selected for The Great Courses is an honor and “a dream come true.” He recently returned from a yearlong research and teaching stint in the Republic of Cameroon in Central Africa — his second Fulbright grant appointment.

“Anthropology and the Study of Humanity,” Dr. Lacy’s completed course, is composed of 24 video sessions at about a half-hour each, with an extensive accompanying booklet. In the first month after its release this past Memorial Day, the course – catapulted by an extensive publicity campaign and an advertisement in the Sunday New York Times – sold nearly 5,000 DVDs. At the time of this writing, it has had almost 80,000 internet streaming views.

With a presentation style that’s calm and direct, yet sprinkled with good humor, Dr. Lacy’s comprehensive introduction to four-field anthropology — biological anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology — offers a thorough understanding of humanity’s development, shared in lively segments complete with supporting video and illustrations.

Students trot the globe, discovering the trove of information each anthropological subfield provides — up to a mountainous region in Tibet where women marry multiple husbands, into caves in Southern France to decipher prehistoric art, and through the farmland of Mali in West Africa.

“The course looks at humanity from all different disciplines. Rather than segregating each subfield, I integrate them because really anything good that comes out of anthropology – its strength – comes from more than one point of view,” Dr. Lacy said, his trademark long locks pulled back into a neat pony tail. “The way I organized this course is around the big human questions.”

In the first session, “Why Anthropology Matters,” Dr. Lacy begins with the questions “Who are we?” and “Where do we come from?” He takes students from the origin of species — both human and animal — through the long history of the big bang, and right up to present day.
Dr. Lacy shares anecdotes of what it was like to be a young explorer, interspersing the course with images of his 1994 Peace Corps volunteer post in the Malian village of Dissan.

“I must have been quite a sight,” Dr. Lacy said emphatically of his first visit to Dissan. “Not yet fully acclimated to the Malian life, I arrived on the back of a beat-up, powder-blue Moped, and I was wearing these matching pants with a local gown-like shirt with fish prints on it. Plus, to complete my ‘freak flag,’ I also sported some red John Lennon sunglasses under a bright yellow helmet. This is not a picture I share on Facebook.”

Unfortunately, after being warmly welcomed and launching a high protein maize project, Dr. Lacy fell ill and was medevacked back to the United States. In just a flash, he said, Dissan was out of his life.

“I went to Mali to help the poorest of the poor but as I lay in the hospital bed, I realized that the village of Dissan had done more for me than I could ever hope to do for them,” Dr. Lacy said, reflecting on the people and village that inspired him to become a cultural anthropologist and a man of social action. “So, to honor this debt, I was determined to return to Mali, but this time with more useful skills.”

Dr. Lacy confessed that he didn’t really start off as a true “bridge builder” between cultures. He was a “hardline, farmer-first kind of thinker” originally, but his mindset has changed.

“Climate change, socioeconomics, enduring conflict have created a really challenging food puzzle in Mali that neither scientists nor farmers alone can figure out,” he said.

Dr. Lacy remembers wisdom that was shared with him on one of his first days back in the fields of Dissan, after he trained as an anthropologist at the University of California Santa Barbara. “Bolo koni kelen te se ka bele taa,” an elder named Sidi uttered as they worked in rows of sorghum. Literally translated, the phrase means, “One finger cannot lift a stone.” Eager to demonstrate otherwise, Dr. Lacy licked his finger, pressed it to a pebble, and lifted it into the air. But, before his smirk could transition into a know-it-all grin, the stone fell to the ground and Sidi said, “Voila!” with a laugh.

While Sidi has long-since passed on, he helped Dr. Lacy to see the path of the anthropologist as a “bridge builder” and as someone who can help create stronger communities through social transformation.

In the “Kinship, Family, and Marriage” lecture later in the course, an anthropological lens is applied to understand how and why different cultures have different ideas about how to structure a family — and what functional logic underlies these differences.

Dr. Lacy calls upon some “virtual ethnographic field research” and offers a close-up on Limi farming communities in the mountains of Tibet, where arable land is limited. It takes a tremendous amount of work to grow crops in this region, particularly at that altitude and without the benefit of modern machinery. And so, over time, said Dr. Lacy, the culture evolved so that many Limi women traditionally marry several husbands, typically, all brothers.

“When I’ve said this in class before at Fairfield, students gasp,” Dr. Lacy said with a smile. “But when we can stop looking at it from our perspective and use some basic anthropological field methods to see it from another point of view, it really makes a lot of sense. More people working the field, maintaining a manageable population, it is a perfectly reasonable human arrangement for these subsistence farmers.’”

While it was hard for him to select a favorite lecture in the series, Dr. Lacy admits that the final one in the course, “The Anthropology of Happiness,” is one of which he is most proud.

“It is an area of anthropology that I’m currently developing,” Dr. Lacy said. “Strangely enough, there are a lot of people studying happiness, but anthropologists haven’t really looked at it from our unique point of view. I want to bring all of these disparate fields together from economics, to health, to spirituality and religion, into a singular frame. Which is, again, what anthropology does — one of its strengths.”
In the capstone class, Dr. Lacy takes students through each of anthropology’s subfields to uncover happiness, which he says is a “sandy term” that’s like “dry ocean sand in your palm; the tighter you try to grasp it, the more it squeezes right out.”

“The same thing goes for happiness [itself],” Dr. Lacy continued in the lecture. “The best we can do is get a loose grip on this core – yet elusive – phenomenon.”

Is happiness really a function of luck? You’ll have to take the course to delve more deeply into Dr. Lacy’s study of the evolution of its meaning.

“I’m really proud of this class,” Dr. Lacy said.  “And I’m really happy because not only is it going to be really beneficial for me to get my view of anthropology out there, but I think it’s great for the University. At Fairfield, we’ve got remarkable professors, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to represent my colleagues in The Great Courses catalogue.” ●F