Stone Henge; original photo by kimber nilsson via unsplash

Everything Ventured: Anthropology Club & the Meaning of Life

March 22, 2021

Pre-pandemic, the Anthropology Club did all sorts of interesting things in person—from butchering meat with stone tools to replicating paleolithic art using hollowed-out bones. There were also archery days, atlatl throwing, stone tool making, game nights, and even a coffin race. Post-pandemic, the club’s faculty advisor, Professor Jamie Hodgkins, PhD, wanted to keep the club active, so she started a weekly anthropology discussion group called Everything Ventured (the optimistic opposite to the old adage, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”).

What Did the Anthropology Club Gain?

The answer to that question is people, community, and the meaning of life.

Hodgkins, who teaches in CU Denver’s Anthropology Department, embraced multimedia by turning the Anthropology Club into a Zoom documentary discussion group. Members watch a documentary about a specific topic on their own time, then come together via Zoom every Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. for a one-hour conversation.

Hodgkins’ first concern was to maintain contact between students. “COVID made it impossible to get together in groups and for students to have this cohort-building opportunity,” she said. “And I truly think students need a cohort in order to do well and succeed in school. I want to help students have a community of like-minded people and engage in science in a way that’s pure fun.”

Sarah Manassee, a student who participates in the club, said, “I think the documentary discussions over Zoom allow us to still experience something together and have really good conversations about a common idea or theme for the week.” Because the club meetings became remote, Hodgkins also invited former colleagues and students. “We watched a documentary series on prehistoric Britain,” Hodgkins said. “I have a friend from graduate school who worked for National Geographic and had done excavations at Stonehenge, and she joined us for a month or two over the summer. She’s the executive director of Lancaster Science Factory (in Pennsylvania), so she connects when she can.”

Hannah Keller ’19, who earned her MA in archaeology from CU Denver and is currently working on her PhD in biological anthropology at Yale University, also joined the group. Keller had served as the president of the Anthropology Club but had been out of touch with Professor Hodgkins. “After leaving CU Denver, I wasn’t involved until Jamie [Hodgkins] started the documentary discussion group; the nice thing about everything being online (regardless of the burnout) is the ability to attend these events and reconnect with individuals in Denver.”

Professor Jamie Hodgkins with one of her cats

Building Community During Pandemic

The remote meetings allowed Hodgkins to broaden the Anthropology Club to the greater Denver community. She started inviting museum workers and volunteers from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) that she met when she had delivered a series of lectures there. “There was a very dedicated group of museumgoers who were unable to engage with science and with each other,” Hodgkins said. “We were able to add voices and perspectives from multiple generations, and I think it’s been really fun, and beneficial.”

Besides being enjoyable, the Everything Ventured meetings created connection during the pandemic. “I was able to check in on my students over the summer to make sure they were healthy, to know what was happening in their lives, and just to make sure they were OK,” Hodgkins said. Manassee, one of Hodgkins’ current students, thinks the club provides much-needed support: “The value of this group cannot be overstated! It’s an emotional anchor to have during the week to catch up with everyone and talk about our lives. It’s a huge academic and intellectual advantage to have a good handle on a diverse array of topics.”

The sense of community also benefitted DMNS staff, as well as Denverites and other people interested in science. Jeff May, a retired civil engineer who holds a master of urban planning from Yale University, joined the group at the beginning of the pandemic. He heard about Everything Ventured from his team leader at DMNS. “For me, the group presented an opportunity to engage in stimulating conversation with people of other backgrounds and life stories. It was also psychologically beneficial in relieving the effects of the pandemic where every day was repetitive,” he said.

Everything Ventured, the Anthropology Club’s documentary discussion group

Anthropology, Archaeology, & All Things Human

If you’re wondering what the difference is between anthropology and archaeology, Hodgkins has a clear, succinct explanation: “Anthropology is the study of humans; archeologists excavate sites and look for evidence of human lifeways, which includes human activities, behaviors, cultural material, and practices; organization, health, social connections, and stratification; and human connections to their environments.” Hodgkins, who runs a site in Italy, is an archeologist—but she’s interested in all sorts of topics. “Humans are self-centered, in that we have no choice but to interpret the world through a human brain and human senses. In that way, everything relates to anthropology.”

Besides Stonehenge, Everything Ventured has discussed a little about a lot. “The discussion group has broadened my interest in numerous topics, including archaeology, cooking, domestication, tattooing practices, astronomy, the existence of time, and most recently, social networks,” graduate student Keller said.

Hodgkins tries to choose documentary movies and TV series that everyone has access to through the Auraria Library or public libraries. According to Hodgkins, Everything Ventured has discussed “Britain, Africa, human origins, beer and wine production, the origin of the universe, and how the mind works.” In short, anything human-related, including the meaning of life.

The hope is that Everything Ventured will continue to grow. “We’ve opened it up to many people, and we are interested in having students from all majors and members of the general public interested in exploring scientific topics,” Hodgkins said.

Everything Ventured March 2021
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