by Katy Kappele
Paul Schroeder defines anthropology as “the study of us — the way we are and the way we think we are. Like an octopus that has tentacles reaching into all aspects of human existence.”
Schroeder has been teaching anthropology for over 20 years, including a year in Kuala Lampur teaching ethnic Chinese students. He said he didn’t come to teaching and Whatcom Community College by any purposeful route.
“I kind of fell into it by accident, I think,” he said, laughing.
At the University of California at Berkley, Schroeder began taking classes in anthropology because it was related to history, his favorite subject. He didn’t want to get a history degree because he didn’t want to teach, and he thought that was all there was to do with a degree in history.
“The sensible thing would be to take business courses and get a job and make money,” he said, laughing again. Instead, he traveled and learned about mankind.
In his travels he saw much that would help shape his life and the way he thinks. In Morocco, he saw an old man with no legs dragging himself down the sidewalk with his hands.
“It gave me a chance to see how other people live, and gave me a perspective of how it is to be an American,” he said.
But for Schroeder, life has never been easy either. He lost his stepfather at 13, and three years later his mother was killed in a car accident. Since coming to Whatcom, he has even survived cancer twice. He put himself through four years of college by working odd jobs, and all the traveling he did was “very economical.”
“It was a lot of hard work,” he said, “but I came to believe in that. You accomplish things through hard work.”
Schroeder believes very much in meeting responsibilities. He has several — to the college, to himself, to the profession.
“I also have a responsibility to the students,” he said. “They’re the ones who have paid a lot of money for an education. I think it’s most important for students to understand how things work in the world.”
Schroeder requires more textbooks than the other professors who teach biological anthropology, which puts many students off. He is considered a hard teacher and a hard grader. There are always some students who withdraw from class, he said, but he believes that this is for many reasons, not necessarily the way he teaches.
“It’s not always easy. A lot of students come to the college and they don’t know what they want,” Schroeder said. “Working hard to gain that knowledge is not what they’re used to. Often students have not been required to actually read a book and understand what it’s saying. It becomes difficult for them.”
He understands what it’s like not to know what you want to do with your life. When he went to university he wasn’t really thinking about graduation, just taking classes he liked. After graduation Schroeder worked on a newspaper for a while before he discovered that he actually liked to teach.
“Every teacher is biased. It makes us all different,” he said. Because all teachers have had different life experiences, they have different ways of teaching. Schroeder said “in order to survive, I always wanted to achieve something.”
Schroeder became an Eagle Scout in high school, as well as captain of the track team. He also played football, and won trips to Disneyland by delivering papers in the mornings. He believes it’s important to work hard.
“I think that if you put a high goal for students, when they accomplish that they feel proud,” he said. “I like that. It’s good for students to have a feeling of accomplishment when something was a struggle and they persevered.”
The archaeologist in Schroeder encourages him to use video tapes in his classes, which his students tease him about. He acknowledges he isn’t fond of technology with good-natured grumbling, and defends his methods steadfastly. He can cut video tapes, and start them right where he wants.
At home, Schroeder works in the garden to wind down, but his passion is teaching. He works very hard to keep up with a changing discipline and the flow of recent discoveries, which he said is like a conveyer belt. He sifts through literature and film on archaeological and biological advances, as well as reading and grading papers, and creating complex tests to challenge his students.
“I think it’s ironic I would end up with a profession with so much reading and research,” he said. “I was always in the lowest reading group in school.”