Has the ritual of college life become too humdrum?
If so, perhaps it is time to try something new.
How about the ritual of spiritual possession, in which a spirit breaks a glass bottle over its host’s head, or attracting an 8-foot shark into a canoe and then eating it?
Professor Wendy Fonarow talks about these and other rituals in the course, “The Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft and Religion,” and students respond to her lectures on indigenous religions.
Eric Johnston, chair of the GCC anthropology department, said “students are listening to her and paying attention, and that’s always a good sign.”
Toward the course’s end, some students give her Armenian or Israeli evil eye protectors so she can ward off witchcraft. Instead, Fonarow uses them to decorate her office, along with Halloween knickknacks she thinks are cute, because she is not a witch and does not practice witchcraft.
Rather, she is an indie rock aficionado who, as a professor of anthropology, hopes she is teaching others to be more self-critical and to meet cultural differences with an open mind.
“I think that if you understand why people do the things that they do, you are less likely to immediately jump to conclusions and judge,” said Fonarow.
Fonarow, for example, did not learn her craft from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Her school was UC San Diego, which she chose to attend because of its reputation for being a challenge. As an applied math major, she achieved “super high” grades and went to indie rock concerts if she wanted to have fun.
It was only when she took anthropology to fulfill a general education requirement that she started to love it, and therefore made it her new major.
“I don’t know a single person who goes to college and thinks ‘I want to be an anthro major,'” said Fonarow. “Most people don’t even know what it is.”
Fonarow was so bewitched by anthropology that she explored the social behavior of children during Halloween for her master’s work and wrote her doctoral dissertation on the aesthetics and rituals of indie rock music.
She was always fascinated with Halloween and indie rock concerts because they are events that are “not the everyday.” Also, she likes it when people can misbehave and not get in trouble.
“I think that tells you a lot about what ordinary behavior is about and what the issues are in your culture,” said Fonarow, who wrote a book coming out in February – the title is still in the works – about the behavior exhibited by audience members at indie rock shows.
For instance, those toward the front are in a crowded area, which makes it very hot. And these people are usually the stage divers and crowd surfers.
She did most of her research in the United Kingdom working at record companies and following bands on the road.
Local bands like The Blood Arm, who know her from her time abroad, often ask Fonarow to come with them to do an interview on Indie 103.1 FM where she is known as “Wendy, the professor of Indie rock.”
While she keeps “the music thing” quiet in class, students nevertheless run into her at gigs or recognize her voice on the radio. They, in turn, want to know more about her musical interests so she e-mails them a list of gigs she would consider going to, her indie list.
Fonarow, in her late 30s, recently received tenure at the college after four years of teaching full-time. Before that, she taught at UCLA where she received an award for distinguished teaching.
Derek Milne, an anthropology professor at PCC, attributes her success to her enthusiasm for the material she teaches and her involvement with students outside of the classroom.
“That’s how I rather spend my administrative time, where I can see the direct impact on students,” said Fonarow, who acts as adviser to the Anthro Club.
On the Day of the Dead, she and the student club journey to Hollywood Forever Cemetery to take photos of other people’s altars and enjoy the festivities.
And on Halloween, Fonarow works with people who devote a lot of time and money to constructing their homes into haunted houses.
One such individual from the Valley spends $1 million per year on his abode. It resembles Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, but unlike the theme park, he does not charge for admission.
On special days like her birthday, however, her students take precedent. This year, she gave a lecture on voodoo, followed by a celebration with cake and party poppers that was anything but humdrum.