Dr. Kiran Jayaram, assistant professor in the USF College of Arts and Sciences Department of Anthropology, describes his life as a “study in border crossing.”
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of rural elite Indian migrants, he said that he learned to appreciate eating South Indian dishes of rice and yogurt while also enjoying the popular Kansas pastime of go-cart riding.
Most of his anthropological research career has been focused in the Caribbean and Latin America, but he is turning his attention toward holistically investigating the impact of cultural dynamics in south India on anthropological training and career paths.
He is aiming to answer the question: “How do you make an anthropologist?”
Jayaram says it goes beyond curricular materials, classroom activities, and other student-teacher interactions.
His new research efforts sprung from a 2022 USF New Researcher Grant he received for $10,000.
“My initial phase of research in October 2022 yielded data that suggested the importance of family economics on academic path,” Jayaram said. “In other words, not everyone can choose to study anthropology whenever they want because it's on their parents' dime. Second, not every university offers an undergraduate or graduate degree in anthropology. Third, many people pursue a graduate degree in anthropology because of a civil service exam track that focuses on anthropological knowledge.”
Jayaram, who is also co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Presidential Advisory Committee at USF and a member of the new anthropological India-based society Anthropological Association for Humankind, has started to generate his data in places close to his heart.
One stop was to the city of Mysuru—where his father grew up and where he still has extended family living— to visit the University of Mysore. He also stopped at Visakhapatnam’s Andhra University, which he says has been known for being a strong university in the area.
“I was there visiting classes, sitting next to students while they listened and took notes,” he said.
Jayaram is currently in the document analysis phase of his research, which he said includes such tasks as studying program requirements and noting books and articles required for Indian students pursuing degrees in anthropology.
“Going to India was great to put my eyes, ears, and all my senses there so that I can see what's going on and have a better understanding and development of relationships,” he said.
Jayaram’s next step in the project involves applying for major grants, like an NSF CAREER award, to provide five years of funding, so he can spend more time at the two state universities and expand to include a central (national) university in South India. His research will involve mixed ethnographic methods with students, faculty, and administrators as well as archival research into the development and changes of anthropology programs.
This new research endeavor has led to him writing a grant for the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC) to research the same question in the Dominican Republic, research he started this past March.
“We can think, ‘Is there a way we can connect and provide opportunities for their faculty and our faculty to develop more robust elements of research and studies?’” he said. “Anthropology is an academic discipline. We have a global knowledge contribution that we need to recognize and create, where all knowledge production can be shared so we can truly learn from people around the world, from our scholars and from the people we work with. That is world anthropologies,” he said.
Jayaram expects this research to provide insight on how universities across the globe can collaborate to share knowledge and resources to improve training for not only those in the Dominican Republic and India, but at USF as well.
“This is the project I’ll feel passionate about for at least the next five or ten years of my life,” he said. “It's looking at what happens with people in higher education and how that relates to broader cultural dynamics.”
“I think anthropology is the best way to understand the problems and difficulties that people face at any given moment,” he said. “If we don’t fully understand problems with all the various cultural and historical dynamics, then we’re only going to come up with partial solutions. I still very much have this youthful ideological goal of trying to change the world and I think anthropology provides an essential tool for getting us ready to do that.”
Jayaram also was recently awarded a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the preeminent global funder for anthropological research and activities in the world. These funds will be used to fully support the participation of several students from India, the Dominican Republic, Nigeria, and USF to attend the upcoming World Applied Anthropology Congress 2023 meeting at the University of Kansas scheduled for early June.
Providing these opportunities for students is just one aspect of how he strives to serve as a mentor for them, especially for his students of South Indian heritage.
“I remember when I was growing up, the only model I had for someone of South Asian heritage was the superintendent of the school district where I went. And I remember when he came in, I felt like he was like an uncle. I felt so excited and so proud. So, I can understand how important it is for someone to identify with their faculty member and say, ‘Hey, I can connect with this person because they're kind of like me.’”