Professor Ashley Kistler discovers the power of engaged research in her work and in her teachings.
For Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ashley Kistler, research isn’t simply about adding to the annals of academia; it is a means by which one can serve the community. “I’ve been involved in community-based research for the last seven years, and I’ve come to realize that it can’t just be research that benefits me as an academic but it must be research that helps meet the needs of the community,” Kistler says.
That’s a belief that has underpinned the work she has done in Guatemala, helping the community of San Juan Chamelco relearn the history they lost during the 36-year civil war. “The Maya were really persecuted for being Maya. They couldn’t speak their language or wear their native dress, and, as a result, a lot of the culture went underground. People stopped being aware of the meaning behind their tradition,” says Kistler, who was interested in understanding this phenomena of lost culture as an anthropologist but also helping the community to reconnect with their past. “A group of people in the community and I have been trying to find ways for them to relearn and have pride in their past.”
Since 2006, Kistler’s research and hands-on work in San Juan Chamelco has resulted in the forming of a collaborative workgroup, the creation of a civic holiday in honor of Aj Poop B’atz’, one of the Maya’s most central historical figures, and the creation of a children’s book, which was written in Spanish and the Mayan language and designed to share his story. More than 500 of these books have been since donated to local school children.
Kistler’s approach is called Collaborative Anthropology, a research dogma that ensures the researcher is doing engaged research and that this research gives back to the community in some way.
“This is my philosophy,” says Kistler, who is currently the book review editor for Collaborative Anthropology journal. This philosophy carries with her in her teaching at Rollins. “I don’t want my students to learn just for their sake but to learn to make a difference in the world. My research in Guatemala has really taught me how important it is to do that.”
Of the six service-learning courses she has taught over the past five years, Kistler feels the most successful was the one she did last spring called The Maya, in which students developed a lecture series for the community about Maya culture. Student teams learned an aspect of the topic—politics, contemporary cultural challenges, or ancient Maya culture —and created 30 to 60-minute lectures to be delivered at senior resident communities in Winter Park and Orlando.
“The students had to become professionals about their specific topic and many had to overcome issues about public speaking. They had to get to know the material more than if they had simply talked about it in class,” says Kistler, who was blown away by how well the lectures were received in the community. “I was really moved by a lot of the comments we got from community members. We got a wide range of responses but one that stands out was from a woman whose father has dementia. He couldn’t remember a lot of details in his life but he could remember the lecture very clearly. He had been a professor in his life and was really stimulated by the topic presented.”
Kistler now designs all of her service-learning projects using the framework of collaborative ethnography. “Doing so helps students to gain first-hand experience in conducting engaged research,” she says. “This project helped students to deepen their knowledge of Maya culture and develop their presentation skills while providing continuing education opportunities for the community. The fact we designed this project collaboratively with our community partners to meet their needs is what made this project a success.”