Queens College has long been an important institution for undergraduate training in anthropology. We count among our alumni some of the most important anthropologists of the last fifty years, including Eric Wolf, Erika Bourguignon, H. Russell Bernard, Helene Silverman, Virginia Vitzhum, and Marian D’Agosto. This legacy began with Hortense Powdermaker. Powdermaker was one of the college’s first faculty members. She came to Queens College in 1938 after seven years at the Institute of Human Relations at Yale University as a protege of Edward Sapir. From her arrival until 1967, the anthropology program was housed in a joint department of Anthropology and Sociology (not Sociology and Anthropology). Powdermaker gathered around her a group of colleagues that we now refer to as “the matriarchy”—women of keen intelligence and scholarly accomplishment who held their own in an academic world still dominated by open sexism. This group included Ernestine Friedl, Sydel Silverman, and Georgeda Buchbinder.
becoming a stand-alone department, the department rapidly expanded to represent
all four subfields. This also marked a
period of demographic shift, during which Powdermaker retired, and other
members of the matriarchy moved to other positions. It was during this period that Paul Mahler
not only built up the biological anthropology curriculum, but also started a
collection of skeletal casts that is truly remarkable in its breadth and scope,
and which the department continues to augment.
The 1970s was also a period of a severe fiscal crisis in New York City. The burden of funding CUNY changed from the city to the state during this period, and many departments at Queens College experienced retrenchments. The Anthropology department was spared retrenchments reputedly by Paul Tolstoy’s taking a position at the University of Montreal. At the end of the 1970s, Roger Sanjek began his ethnographic project in Elmhurst/Corona, Queens. This project involved many students during its duration, some of whom went on to publish books based on the research.
saw growth in the archaeology and biological anthropology faculty, but
instability in the cultural ranks—no cultural anthropologist hired after Roger
Sanjek in 1972 was retained until Kevin Birth was hired in 1993.
In the 1990s, the department finally secured space for an active archaeology laboratory, as opposed to merely a teaching laboratory. This facility has been used for field projects involving students on the Shiloh mounds, and several projects on colonial through mid-19th century Queens—the Bowne House, the Queens County Farm, and Alley Pond Park. In the early 2000s, the department was given a laboratory for biological anthropology. Most recently, the department has developed an ethnography of speaking laboratory that provides computer facilities for ethnographic and linguistic research. With this facility, the department can now claim to offer students hands-on experience in all four subfields.
Starting in the 1990s there was another major demographic shift in the department’s faculty as those hired during the rapid expansion in the late 1960s started to retire. For several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the department struggled to maintain enough full-time faculty to adequately serve our students. The turmoil caused by the demographic shift was compounded by difficulty in retaining newly hired faculty. This was also the period in which the department had been relocated from Powdermaker Hall into cramped temporary facilities, so that Powdermaker Hall could be renovated.
Currently, the department’s enrollments approach 5,000 every academic year, and we serve about 150 majors. The high enrollments are due to the department continuing to play an important role in the college’s general education curriculum.This involvement is not only in terms of offering courses, but also in terms of participating in the design, implementation, and administration of this curriculum.
The current department is a collegial, vibrant department that remains committed to undergraduate training in anthropology, whether it is part of a liberal arts education or as preparation for advanced study in anthropology.