I have the best job in the world.

Last Thursday morning, I had my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class.  I have 40 or so freshmen and sophomores in there and the topic for the day was nature-nurture.  I’ve worked hard at this particular topic, in part because it is one that most people come into the class knowing something about, or at least with some opinions formed.  I try to get people to a point where they can see the topic in complex terms, and to detect the falsity that comes with simplistic “our genes make us do it” type arguments.  I think I succeeded that day, but the most heartening moment came when a student in the back asked, plaintively, if homosexuality “was genetic.”  I rate the mere asking of this question within a week of the course opening to be a victory for the openness of the classroom and searching quality of higher education.

After a few hours of much needed quiet time in front of the computer, it was off to meet David Hopelain, founder of a local start-up called Synergy Automotive.  David has a product that links after-market parts manufacturers with auto dealerships.  Currently, after-market auto parts are a $38 billion/year business, and auto dealerships get only a tiny fraction of that.  David’s product will “bring auto customization into the showroom” in the way yet unknown.  Several months ago, I agreed to supervise four of my undergraduate anthropology majors in an ethnographic study of auto dealerships in Fresno.  This was an easy decision for both of us.  My students get real world ethnographic research experience (a key mission of the Institute of Public Anthropology that The Anthro Guys founded a few years ago) and David gets information about how the process of selling cars actually goes down.  This is design anthropology at its best.  David knows this business and he knows a lot about parts and dealers, but he still has questions about how his product will actually fit into existing practices and worldviews of auto salesmen and dealership managers.  He’s open to design insights drawn from the world of actual users, observed and engaged at work in their natural habitat — insights that are not available via survey or focus group.

The students did their research late last semester and I wrote the results up over break, and now David Hopelain, his advisor, David Hakim, two students and myself were set to meet to discuss the results.  The meeting went well, and afterward, David told me that my four undergrads had done work on a par with grad-level business students he’d had as an instructor at a major west coast business school.

After a quick stop home, I went on to the next project, construction in a downtown art gallery of a full-scale model of an efficiency unit.  Headed by some local architects, the installation of the model unit will open Feb. 5 to an ArcHop reception.  On that day and in the subsequent weeks, my students and I will be there to record peoples’ reactions to the space, after which we will turn the results over to the architects for subsequent re-design.  But last Thursday night, an architect, an anthropologist and an interior design student worked at erecting wall panels on the interior of the space that a team of us had framed the week before (see previous posts).  We knocked off close to 11pm, tired but satisfied.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized, “I have the best job in the world.”