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ASU students access the art of a diverse human story

February 18, 2019

A new course examines crafted creations while deconstructing the hidden cultural meanings behind their designs

“A lot of students think we’re just going to talk about art and aesthetics, but I challenge them to think about the cultural importance of art. How was it made, why was it made, how was it used?”

This is the mindset Joel Palka — a recently hired associate professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change — wants students to bring with them when they walk into his new course, Anthropology and Art (ASB 350).

Throughout the semester, students will explore the art forms of peoples from around the world, focusing not on how the art looks, but rather on the context behind it. Examples include cedar wood masks from indigenous groups of the Northwest U.S. and their connections to identity; poured-bronze sculptures in India and their treatment as living entities; and the shields of the Asmat people of New Guinea, which are seen as having a supernatural power to protect in battle.

Even art from the Western world has its own context, says Palka. And although we may not think our society associates spiritual forces with objects the way others do, there are examples that prove that’s not entirely true.

“I tell my students about studies where a person offers two sweaters to university students — saying one is off the rack from the store, and the other from a convicted killer. Nobody would wear the killer’s sweater,” he said.

photo of contemporary Maya ceramics

Contemporary Lacandon Mayan incense burners from Naja, Chiapas, Mexico. After used in cave shrines, they were abandoned there. Photo courtesy of Joel Palka

Palka himself specializes in Mayan art, another topic covered in the course. He’s interested in Mayan culture change from the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century to the present, so his research involves both archaeological and anthropological work in the rainforests of Chiapas, Mexico.

He also finds it extremely valuable to include the descendant community from where he works in his research.

“When we excavate architecture and artifacts, they provide cultural interpretation of what we find,” he said.

The necessity of diverse perspectives to capture the full meaning of something is a principle he now instills in his students as well. Each week, ASB 350 students read about art from another culture and then write about and discuss their take on major themes, how the art is important to its society, and what they do and don’t agree with in the reading.

“It’s neat because everybody sees something different,” Palka said. “Anytime we talk, we’re going to have anywhere from five to 15 main topics of discussion.”

He also assigns students a research project based on the art of Teotihuacan, which was on display at the Phoenix Art Museum during the first month of the semester. He believes it’s important to get up close and personal with the art whenever possible.

photo of Palka practicing with Maya bow and arrow

Palka practices with a native Lacandon Maya bow and arrow outside a friend's house at Mensabak, Chiapas, Mexico.

“Don’t think you can be a good art student just by reading books,” he said. “If you don’t see the real thing, you’re missing out on a lot.”

“When I was an archaeology student, my professors taught about the ‘Dancing Figures’ sculpted panels that depict sacrificial victims from Monte Albán in Oaxaca, Mexico. I always thought they were like this big,” he said, gesturing with his hands an arm-length apart. “But when you go to the actual site, you see that they’re double life-size.”

Palka’s favorite lecture to teach is inspired by the work of a fellow ASU faculty member and anthropologist, Associate Professor Miguel Astor-Aguilera of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

Astor-Aguilera turns conventional thinking on its head, says Palka, by arguing that the Maya did not hold their art as sacred and disposed of it once it had served its function.

“It was not supposed to be put in a museum,” Palka said. “It was supposed to rot.”

By the end of the course, his goal is to have transformed the way students think about and appreciate the human component behind these masterful pieces, enriching what could otherwise be just a visual experience.

“I hope that, when they go to a museum, they look at art in a different way,” he said. “Not just as something beautiful from one artist, but as part of a larger story of human culture.”

Top photo courtesy of

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise


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Philosophy and sustainability science collide

February 18, 2019

ASU assistant professor part of project to develop an understanding between sustainability scientists and philosophers

It isn’t every day the humanities and sciences combine their research, but when they do something new is created and explored. Such will be the case for a new research project, “Philosophy of Sustainability Science,” which will have Arizona State University’s C. Tyler DesRoches on the team of researchers.

DesRoches is an assistant professor of philosophy in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and assistant professor of sustainabilityDesRoches is also a senior sustainability scholar in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. and human well-being in the School of Sustainability. His team was recently awarded a grant from the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science in Finland.

The project will look to develop an understanding between sustainability scientists and philosophers to gain an integration of models and concepts from the different disciplines. Specifically, it is looking to focus on behavioral economics and ecological/environmental economics.

“Within philosophy, we hope that more philosophers realize sustainability is not just a buzzword but something that fundamentally challenges our ways of thinking about science, society and our relationship to nature,” said DesRoches. “More widely, we hope sustainability science will become more methodologically and ethically well-grounded on the progress philosophers have been making in philosophy of science. That is, we hope that there’s more interdisciplinary integration between science and philosophy.”

He became interested in interdisciplinarity and sustainability as research fields that philosophers of science have often neglected. As a philosopher of science himself, he hopes to create more dialogue between philosophy and sustainability.

“Sustainability is a concept that crystallizes the numerous challenges that we as a civilization face and are going to face in the coming centuries,” said DesRoches. “We want to do philosophy that matters, not merely the kind of esoteric philosophy in the academy — though we still love knowledge for its own sake.”

He will be working alongside other philosophers of science, including Michiru Nagatsu from the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability, University of Helsinki; Taylor Davis from the Department of Philosophy, Purdue University; and Robert Lepenies from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research.

Nagatsu and DesRoches share a background in the history and philosophy of economics and have known each other for a long time. The chance to work on this project together has been fun for them. 

Tyler DesRoches

C. Tyler DesRoches, assistant professor of philosophy and of sustainability and human well-being.

“[DesRoches] always replies to my email instantly, like one does to a WhatsApp chat or something,” said Nagatsu. “He's hyperactive. Perhaps, because of that, I don't feel that we are more than 5,000 miles away. Maybe I talk to him more often than I do to some colleagues down the corridor.”

Together, along with the other members of their team, they plan to write a few special issues in philosophy and sustainability journals. DesRoches will also be writing a monograph titled, “Sustainability Without Sacrifice: A Philosophical Analysis of Human Well-Being and Consumption,” which is under contract with Oxford University Press.

Overall, the research team hopes to inform and advance practices by identifying real challenges and ways to tackle them. When asked how the research would be compiled when completed, DesRoches stated the following:

“This is an ongoing interdisciplinary research program that does not have any clear end point. I hope we have a manuscript or two by the end of 2019.”

Top photo courtesy of