Anthropology Intersects with Everything

Cultural Anthropologist Katie Nelson views teaching and learning as equally interactive and reflexive endeavors

Katie Nelson, an anthropology instructor at Inver Hills Community College, lives and loves her academic discipline. Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and conversant in French and Arabic, Katie has conducted research in Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Costa Rica and El Salvador as well as in the United States. Her fieldwork in Brazil involved immersing herself in the culture of an emerging indigenous tribe.
Ethnographic research—the firsthand, in-depth study of a particular group of people and their culture from that group’s own perspective—is the hallmark of cultural anthropology. Because she thrives in this type of research, Katie is adept at conveying to her students the wonders of directly experiencing the day-to-day worlds of diverse societies. She shows how anthropological insights are invaluable assets on virtually any career path.
“Anthropology is about making connections,” Katie said. “The discipline is holistic and relevant to all students. Anthropology intersects with everything.”
Katie enjoys exploring student opinions and reactions to her course content throughout the semester. “I love being surprised by the different ways students have of looking at things,” she said. “My students continually help me to become a better instructor.”

Katie Nelson faculty snapshot

  • Katie NelsonDepartment: Anthropology
  • Anthropological specialty: Cultural anthropologist
    • Areas of focus:
      • Immigration to the U.S.
      • Undocumented college student experiences
      • Mexican, Central American and Latino cultural group experiences
      • Demographic and cultural changes in rural Minnesota
      • Intersections between cultural/ethnic groups
      • Qualitative research methods
      • Online teaching and instructional technology


  • Ph.D. in Social Sciences with an Emphasis in Cultural Anthropology from CIESAS (Institute for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology, or Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social) in Guadalajara, Mexico
  • M.A. in Learning Technology with a graduate certificate in E-Learning from the University of St. Thomas
  • M.A. in Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara
  • B.A. in Anthropology from Macalester College with minors in Spanish and Portuguese and Latin American Studies

Q & A

What do you like most about anthropology?

“Learning about other cultures and traveling. Anthropology has helped me better understand my own society through lived experiences in other societies and cultural frames.”

What do you like most about teaching anthropology?

“Learning from students! Every semester I learn just as much from students as they learn from my courses. A favorite assignment is a life history paper in which students have to find an informant who is different from them in at least two dimensions (such as perceived “race,” ethnicity, age, religion, native language, country of origin, gender, etc.) and conduct a series of interviews in which they gather a robust life history of that person. I absolutely love reading these papers. The rich stories students weave tend to be well written and engaging.

“Importantly, the stories also show how much growth students have achieved in learning to think like an anthropologist. At the end of their paper, I ask students to reflect on how interviewing someone else has helped them understand who they are as a person and undergraduate researcher. Students end up learning as much about themselves as about their informant. This sort of emerging reflexivity and cultural introspection students develop is fascinating to me and is the golden moment for me as a professor.”

What was one of your biggest challenges as an anthropology teacher?

“An IHCC dean approached me with the opportunity to teach anthropology at a men’s prison [Minnesota Corrections Facility–Faribault]. I was somewhat intimidated and apprehensive at the outset, but the opportunity turned out to be one of the best teaching experiences I have had. The students had rich life experiences and mature perspectives. They asked a lot of great questions and we had great discussions.”

In December 2014, Katie Nelson conducted a workshop called “Teaching Anthropology Online: Best Tools and Practices for Quality E-Learning” at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
“Presenting at the annual meeting was a prestigious opportunity,” said Katie, who taught the workshop with Tazin Karim Daniels, a medical anthropologist from Michigan State University. More than 800 anthropologists from countries around the globe attended the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, the largest conference of its kind in the world.
“Our workshop was well attended,” reported Katie, whose qualifications include service as a Quality Matters™ Certified Peer-Reviewer, distance learning faculty mentor and instructional design consultant. “We also launched an E-Learning Anthropology website with workshop materials and teacher resources to accompany the workshop. Because online and hybrid learning are important aspects of anthropology at the college level, we want to make sure students are gaining as much as they can from the experience.”

What are your favorite anthropology projects in your career so far?

  • Conducting research on undocumented Mexican immigrant college student experiences
  • Studying anthropology (graduate school) in Mexico at CIESAS
  • Serving as an expert witness and/or interpreter for Central American asylum cases in Minnesota

What is your teaching philosophy?

“I have taught anthropology at the college level for more than eleven years. In this time, I have discovered that teaching is as much an art as it is a set of substantive techniques founded in research. The art of teaching for me is based on building relationships. I believe that people learn best in the context of others and through positive, respectful and appropriate human relationships. As such, I seek to establish a learning environment in my classroom where students feel that their life experiences are honored and their perspectives are valued. Ultimately, my goal is for students to become personally engaged in the course material and excited about anthropology!

“In truth, this is not a difficult task. Anthropology is an exciting discipline to teach. Most generally, anthropology can be defined as the study of humans throughout time and across space. One of the broadest and most holistic of all academic areas of study, anthropology offers students a unique opportunity to explore the full range of what it means to be human. Doing cultural anthropology is an intensely interactive and reflexive human activity. It requires the anthropologist to develop a strong rapport with her informants and also reflect back on herself as a researcher and to (re)examine her own perspectives, biases, interpretations and privileges. I have found that teaching and learning are equally interactive and reflexive endeavors. This is a feature of teaching and learning that I value the most.

“As a cultural anthropologist, I use my ethnographic fieldwork experiences (in Brazil, Mexico and the US) to engage my students in this dynamic discipline. Ethnography involves an intimate understanding of and participation in the everyday lives of people in order to understand how they experience and interpret their lives and the world around them. As an ethnographic researcher, I am bound to a set of basic ethical responsibilities. These include the need to treat people with honor and respect, to appreciate diverse opinions and backgrounds, and to seek to understand what I see and hear within their various personal, social, and greater historical contexts. This same approach is also very much a part of my teaching philosophy. Additionally, in a world of increasing diversity and complexity, these skills put any world citizen at an advantage and are among the skills and perspectives I try to foster through my teaching at Inver Hills Community College.”

 What’s new in Anthropology Club?

“Anthropology Club has gone well this year. The students are now involved in producing a film called “What’s Your Story?” This short film will highlight the experiences of Inver Hills students with immigration experiences. The film will explore the unique challenges and opportunities students with immigration experiences face. The film will take a life history approach, which is an anthropological and ethnographic research technique. The film will premier in March of 2015.

“At least four other courses and faculty will be collaborate in the event, which will include poster-presentations of countries represented in the film as well as the push-and-pull factors that cause people to leave their country of origin and migrate to their host country. Following the film there will be a Q & A panel discussion in which film attendees can ask further questions of the Anthropology Club student film producers as well as the students highlighted in the film. The Anthropology Club will also be involved in preparing for this event.”

Originally from Northfield, Minnesota, Katie Nelson resides in Jordan, Minn., with her two sons, Josue, 10, and Alejandro, aka Ali, 7. She has two cats, Lily and Lily’s Baby, and a rescue hound/lab mix named Lola. Her favorite pastimes and hobbies include writing, travel, research and reading as well as gardening in the summer.
“I used to write poetry and want to return to creative writing soon,” Katie added. “I love art and have lots of art up on my walls at home. I sometimes buy great student art from Inver Hills students.”

For more information about the Anthropology department and/or earning an A.A. with an Emphasis in Anthropology at Inver Hills, contact:

Katie Nelson
Anthropology Faculty

Katie Nelson with anthropology students during community-based learning project at River's Edge Academy
Katie Nelson with anthropology students during a community-based learning project at River’s Edge Academy

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