Laura Tilghman: Professor, Mother, and Interdisciplinary Extraordinaire

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Here’s a portrait of Laura that her friends in Madagascar so graciously created for her.

Meet Laura

 Laura Tilghman is a new mother. She’s also a world traveler, an educator, and an anthropologist with a sense of curiosity that’s a mile wide. Nowadays, you can find this talented woman extending her wisdom at Plymouth State University by teaching two courses: Cultural Anthropology and the Anthropology of Migration.

What sets Dr. Tilghman apart from the typical academic is her immersive research and dedication to her field. She spent two years doing anthropological research in Madagascar, and five or so more years writing about her observations of the local people. This research was part of her University of Georgia doctorate program, one of few in the country that strongly integrated environmental issues into the anthropological curriculum.

 Her Connections Outside Her Field

 Given Dr. Tilghman’s impressive experience studying, communicating with, and working alongside many different types of people, it’s no wonder that working with scholars outside of her field comes easily. (At least that’s what I observed; she’s too humble to admit that herself). She mentioned that her main research interests include working with the Veterans Administration in the Health Sector. To do this research, she associates with sociologists and systems engineers, two occupations that aren’t exactly tangent to her own. Dr. Tilghman admits that it can be difficult to work with people who aren’t used to anthropology, especially because many of these scientists value quantitative data over her more qualitative results. Hence, the work becomes very interdisciplinary as Dr. Tilghman and her colleagues are forced to recognize the importance of both types of data and the individual values of each.

I also asked what it was like working with non academics in her professional life. “Oh jeez,” she laughed, and went on to tell me that she this wasn’t her forte. However, she supersedes any object of uncertainty by taking time to make sure her communication with non academics is very clear. She explained that sometimes she has to write reports for the government, who are typically unfamiliar with the detail and depth of her studies, so she has to write it in a way that’s simultaneously sophisticated and simple.

Her Role as an Educator

 We commiserated over the lack of excitement in those types of tasks and I moved on to something that she finds a lot more fascinating: her teaching. I took her Cultural Anthropology class in the Fall, and the lessons ranged from Gender and Race studies, to the Environment, to Linguistics and Language. There’s an incredible amount of crossover from other disciplines into anthropology, and she laced them together seamlessly. Understanding culture completely requires a foundation of knowledge that crests beyond simply understanding people. We learned about the wilderness and witchcraft, gift exchange and economics. Her understanding of a range of topics spreads far and wide.

In addition to the interdisciplinary topics she teaches about in Cultural Anthropology, she also mentioned that there’s an interesting mix of students in her Migration class. She has Anthropology Majors, Business Majors, Tourism Majors, you name it. Dr. Tilghman mentioned that in teaching, you often have to translate your discipline for other majors, and with a mix like that, she sure keeps busy in the classroom!

Interdisciplinary Advice

 Lastly, I asked her about what courses students who major in Anthropology should take from outside that department. Dr. Tilghman answered that it depends on interests: those interested in environmental issues (like herself), should take some environmental classes. Those interested in Archaeology should take lots of history and philosophy courses. Those looking to pursue Physical Biological Anthropology should take lots of anatomy and health classes. She did stress, however, the importance for all students to take other social science classes like sociology and psychology.

Lately, Dr. Tilghman’s been most interested in the topic of international migration from Madagascar. She wants to know about the immigrant communities and where they are choosing to move to. Traditionally, these people move to France since Madagascar used to be a French colony, but now they’re thinking about China, Canada or even the U.S. She’s fascinated by how they adapt to these new places, their challenges, and how they maintain connections back home. Unsurprisingly, this research prompts her to draw upon knowledge of social patterns, economics, and even health: an interdisciplinary mix in the least.

I ended the interview by snapping a picture of the portrait she had hanging on her wall – one that her friends in Madagascar made of her. The resemblance is quite uncanny. I left, not only impressed by the depth of her research and interests, but by the breadth of knowledge she’s been able to acquire that stretches across so many disciplines. She truly is a model for us in this field.


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